More than 30 citizens and civic leaders made their voices heard on various hot-button issues during the annual Pasco County Legislative Delegation meeting at Zephyrhills City Hall.
Refining funding for area schools was among the key themes at the Sept. 1 gathering.
The annual event allows residents, elected officials, representatives of city and county governments, and civic organizations to speak directly to their legislators prior to the start of the next legislative session.
Pasco’s delegation includes State Reps. Amber Mariano, Ardian Zika and Randy Maggard; and State Sens. Wilton Simpson (current Senate president), Ed Hooper and Danny Burgess, respectively. Maggard was absent at the delegation meeting.
Pasco County School Board member Colleen Beaudoin opened the conversation on education — addressing the delegation on virtual school financing inequities.
Beaudoin asked state leadership to consider an amendment that would strike language from a Florida statute that puts Pasco’s virtual program at a disadvantage to the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) program.
Current law limits Pasco eSchool to earning full-time equivalency (FTE) funding during the 180-day school calendar, while the state’s virtual school can record FTEs throughout the summer, Beaudoin explained.
This situation hurts students who wish to take online classes during the summer — whether that’s to meet graduation requirements or accelerate their learning, she said.
She also noted that Pasco eSchool offers more than 50 courses that are not available from FLVS, including high-interest electives, dual-enrollment, Advanced Placement, and career and technical courses.
“We want every opportunity to provide choice for our students and families,” said Beaudoin, a University of Tampa math instructor and department of education chair.
Beaudoin put forth three instances of funding being denied students to take district virtual classes.
“Please allow for the same funding that you provide for FLVS.”
United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace stepped in to raise concerns about the state’s “formulation and categorical restrictions in the teacher salary increase allocation.”
The union leader said he agrees with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to raise the floor on salaries to recruit new teachers.
But, Peace said there needs to be some accommodations for more experienced teachers, particularly regarding salary compression.
The first 15 years of teacher salaries have been compressed in Pasco — meaning that a 15-year teacher makes the same salary as a teacher fresh out of college, Peace said.
Peace suggested altering the state’s teacher salary allocation guidelines. Currently, it calls for 80% of funds to be used for increasing the base salary, with 20% for those already above the base salary.
He suggested that it should be split 50/50, which would allow school boards the ability to raise the ceiling on salaries to recognize long-term employees.
Peace also urged legislators to improve salaries for bus drivers, custodians, food and nutrition services workers and other support staff.
Tammy Rabon-Noyce is the executive director of CLASS Pasco, a nonprofit organization that represents the interests and advocacy for over 260 school principals, assistant principals and staffers.
She emphasized the need for legislators to involve school administrators and organizations such as CLASS Pasco in the drafting of education policies and funding.
She also asked the state to give local districts more freedom in spending decisions.
“We need autonomy over those (state) funds that you all so generously provide to us, and we ask that you consult with us — let us talk you through the implications of policies that you are considering, and tap our expertise,” Rabon-Noyce said.
Other topics included criminal justice, health care, small businesses, nonprofits, environmental and municipal infrastructure.
There was even talk about how the Sunshine State can better position itself to attract more film and television productions.
Tampa-based actor Ray Watters spoke on behalf of Film Florida, a statewide not-for-profit entertainment association.
The longtime professional actor underscored the potential economic windfall if Florida was able to attract more film and production companies.
“It’s really, really disheartening for me to know that Florida is the only state in the southeast, and one of 16 states throughout the U.S., without a program to compete for film and television projects, which puts us at a major competitive disadvantage,” he said.
Watters claimed that Florida has lost out on close to 100 major film and television projects that would’ve equated to over $1.5 billion spent statewide, 125,000 cast and crew jobs, and 250,000 hotel room nights.
A handful of passionate speakers called upon the legislative delegation to institute a statewide anti-tethering law.
Lutz resident Betsy Coville, a veterinarian for over three decades, said anti-tethering legislation promotes public safety and gives law enforcement additional tools to impede dog fighting.
Dog fighting, Coville added, is linked to illegal drugs and money laundering.
She also described the inhumane treatment endured by dogs who are tethered to a stationary object outdoors for lengthy periods.
“A dog on a chain has a very small, lonely world. They eat, sleep and live in the filth where they urinate and defecate,” Coville said.
“They’re at the mercy of rain, cold, heat, and sitting targets for biting insects and predators, both human and animal. They are not a part of a loving family, and rarely have appropriate food, shelter or veterinary care.
“Dogs are social animals and, over time, a lack of companionship and attention leads to fearful, anxious and often aggressive animals.”
Although four hours had been allotted for the legislative delegation meeting, speakers concluded their remarks within two hours.
Each guest speaker had been given three minutes to make their points and requests.
“Believe it or not folks, Pasco County has showed how you do a delegation meeting,” said Burgess the delegation chair, referring to the meeting’s efficiency.
The Florida Legislature kicks off the 2022 regular session on Jan. 11. The fall interim committee meeting schedule began Sept. 20 and runs through early December.
Published September 29, 2021