Educators’ legislative agenda begins to take shape

Dave Miner asks a question during a candidates forum Oct. 18 in Bradenton.
Dave Miner asks a question during a candidates forum Oct. 18 in Bradenton. Zack Wittman

December was only hours old, but wish lists were already being finalized.

The Central Florida Public School Boards Coalition — a consortium of 13 school districts in Central Florida — gathered in Tampa on Thursday morning during the Florida School Board Association’s annual Joint Conference and discussed what it wants from state lawmakers next year.

The coalition, which represents the interests of Manatee County to state lawmakers, has drafted a 10-item legislative agenda for 2017.

The legislative agenda draft identifies five policy priorities and five fiscal priorities, which School District of Manatee County board member Dave Miner said fell in line with what he sees as priorities for Manatee.

Miner, who has served as the chairman of the coalition for the past year, declined to say which of the 10 agenda items was most important to him, but he said state funding is the biggest issue.

“We need more local authority for having the funds necessary for providing the buildings for our students and the pay appropriate for our employees,” Miner said. “Currently, legislators hamstring school districts in what they can do to provide the best facilities and appropriate pay.”

The top policy priority listed is for the state to reinstate special education diplomas and to allow GEDs and special diplomas to be included in high school graduation rate calculations. A 2014 law eliminated special education diplomas in Florida, a law that standardized graduation requirements for all students in Florida, but can lower calculated graduation rates when compared to other states offering special diplomas.

The top listed fiscal priority for the coalition is for the Florida Legislature to restore funding to 2007, pre-recession levels.

Manatee Superintendent Diana Greene said one issue affecting Manatee County not included in the coalition’s agenda is a 2016 law regulating the dollar amount spent per-square-foot when building new schools. Greene said the law limits the district’s ability to build facilities like science labs or automotive repair labs.

Although much of Thursday’s breakfast meeting was ceremonial, with Miner handing over the gavel to new chairman Andy Ziegler from Brevard County, discussion of the group’s legislative agenda sparked strong feelings.

Osceola County School Board member Jay Wheeler cautioned fellow coalition members against calling for change without having well-thought-out alternatives.

“We could end up with something more dumb and more absurd than what we already have. In their cloistered ignorance, they can’t believe (current laws) are wrong,” said Wheeler. “When you talk to people up there, you need to use small words and speak slowly.”

But Manatee School Board Vice Chairman John A. Colon said local board members should not view lawmakers as adversaries.

“They have to be our partners, not our enemies,” said Colon, a former member of the state board of education.

The Manatee board will be discussing the coalition’s agenda at the Dec. 13 school board workshop, and Miner said the coalition is likely to approve the agenda at its January meeting.

The state legislature’s general session begins March 7.

Ryan McKinnon: 941-745-7027, @JRMcKinnon