Thousands rally in Tallahassee to protest cuts to Florida schools


Heeding a call from state officials to show their discontent, more than a thousand students, parents, teachers and administrators from every corner of Florida descended upon the steps of the state Capitol on Wednesday to decry the prospect of more budget cuts to education.

Yet their protests will likely make little difference in another year of considerable budget woes and scarce political will to radically change the way education is funded.

”Education is not the only issue,” state Rep. William Snyder, a Stuart Republican, told two Palmetto Middle School students Wednesday. “We have to find some kind of middle ground.”

The demonstration drew groups from all over the state, with some school districts close to Tallahassee, like Citrus, Volusia and Polk, carrying signs with their names.

”What do we want? Funding! When do we want it? Now!” students chanted at the ”Rally in Tally,” an event organized by the Florida PTA to protest looming education cuts for the upcoming fiscal year.

They showed their numbers by cheering on a local legislator or student who grabbed the microphone.

The loudest bunch: Students and parents from Miami-Dade and Broward, who made up about half the crowd. Most of them had spent a mostly sleepless night aboard buses on the nine-hour ride to the state capital. Some paid out of their pockets to go, skipping work and classes. Others raised funds so bus riders could go for free.

Among those rallying was Broward Superintendent Jim Notter, who praised Wednesday’s event as a rare show of unity among districts sometimes fractured by politics.

”It’s one of the few times I’ve seen this state come together in solidarity,” Notter said.

Education funding has frequently stirred resentment between larger, wealthier urban school systems and smaller rural ones over how to split tax dollars.

With all districts hurting, none of that came up Wednesday as protesters holding ”Cuts to education never heal” and ”We can unelect you” posters directed their anger squarely on the Legislature.

Lawmakers at the rally lamented past cuts — ”A budget cut is a cut to a child,” said state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat — and said they would work to prevent future ones.

But they didn’t make any promises.

Some Miami-Dade legislators shifted blame to school boards and told parents and students that’s where they should direct their anger, which frustrated parents.

”They send us back and forth,” said Maria Torres, a mother of two Felix Varela Senior High students in West Kendall. “Now we have to go back to the [Miami-Dade] School Board and let them know we’re not going to let them slide. And then we have to come back here.”

Gov. Charlie Crist, a rumored speaker at the rally, was a no-show. According to The Associated Press, the governor said he wanted to get out of Tallahassee and listen to his bosses, the public. He attended a town hall meeting at the Mayport Naval Station, where he said the state should fund education without raising taxes.

Democrats have floated the idea of a one-cent sales tax increase to fund public education.

”A one-cent increase, I don’t like that. I don’t like taxes,” the governor said.

More steep cuts are expected for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — despite funding for education from the federal stimulus package. As one of three states to underfund education in previous years, Florida has to apply for a waiver to get some of the stimulus dollars.

That application is still in the works, and even though the U.S. Department of Education is expected to accept it, some strings will likely be attached to the money. And with declining state revenue estimates, the federal funds will likely not be enough to plug education holes.

The Broward and Miami-Dade school districts — the largest in the state and among the biggest in the country — have already been crippled by the budget ax. Miami-Dade has had to slash its almost $3 billion operational budget by more than $300 million this year alone, while Broward has had to slice about $150 million from its $2 billion operational budget in the past year and a half.

Christopher Fisk, 14, and Max Lucas, 11, both students at Palmetto Middle in Pinecrest, presented state Rep. Julio Robaina, a Miami Republican, with 1,200 student signatures they collected in one day to protest education cuts.

”I’m glad this is coming directly from the students,” Robaina said. “When the kids come up here and take a day off . . . that’s the impact.”

Students like Kaitlyn Schlotzhauer, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Herbert Ammons Middle in the Redland, rode to Tallahassee to ask lawmakers to save fine-arts programs and teachers.

Matthew Madonia, a junior at College Academy in Fort Lauderdale, and Diego Leon Mosquera, a junior at Deerfield Beach High, performed a poem about budget cuts with Ray Dominguez, their advisor for the Write Side Poets group — and got the most raucous applause and laughter of any speaker in the rally.

None of them — or their friends — was deterred by lawmakers reminding them that education was not the only funding priority.

”I want them to actually listen to us, knowing that we came all across the state to change something,” said 16-year-old Deborah Moreno, a sophomore at John A. Ferguson Senior High in West Kendall. “But it was hard. They were all just so busy.”

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