Lawton “Bud” Chiles, son of the late Governor Chiles, is retracing his father’s 600 mile walk around Florida to raise awareness for children’s issues. This weekend, his walk took him through Okaloosa County in the panhandle where he visited a pre-K facility and learned how a decline in state funding has put a burden on schools. The Crestview News Bulletin reports:
Although the Okaloosa School District’s budget this year is roughly the same amount as was budgeted in 2005, county residents are paying $21 million more this year in school property taxes.
That is because local tax dollars are paying for a greater lion’s share of education costs.
“As state revenues go down, they are pushing that burden down to the property owners,” said Rodney Nobles, assistant superintendent for Okaloosa County Schools.
It is a scenario being played out across Florida.
One man contends the state has done a poor job of funding education. Lawton “Bud” Chiles has launched a grassroots movement to improve education and healthcare for Florida children in a “worst to first” campaign. Chiles’ efforts have garnered support from a former U.S. president, former congressmen and a host of notable charities.
Chiles swung through Okaloosa County this week, walking in his father’s footsteps. Chiles is retracing the nearly 600-mile walk around the state made by “Walkin’ Lawton” Chiles in 1970 during his bid for the U.S. Senate. The elder Chiles died in 1998, weeks shy of completing his second term as governor.
Bud Chiles’ walk began in North Escambia County three weeks ago and on Wednesday he stopped in at Southside Center in Crestview, a pre-kindergarten facility that also works with children with learning disabilities. The school was formerly Southside Elementary School.
“What we are trying to have is a million steps to get a million Floridians engaged in making Florida a better place for children in healthcare, education and juvenile justice,” Bud Chiles said while touring Southside Center.
While neither Nobles nor Southside Center school officials are involved in Chile’s campaign, they agreed education funding in the state is a problem getting worse.
The Okaloosa School District’s $190 million budgeted for the 2009-10 school year is roughly the same amount the district had during the 2005-06 school year. Since then, costs have gone up.
“If you factor in inflation, employee raises and insurance costs from 2005-06 to 2010, we are well behind the eight ball,” Nobles said.
Sales taxes provide much of the state’s share of education funding. In Okaloosa County, 39 percent of the school district’s budget is paid for by the state, with the remainder — 61 percent — paid for by taxes on local property owners.
The state use to shoulder the greader burden.
“When I came back to Florida in 1984, it was just the opposite,” Nobles said. “Something has to be done statewide as far tax structure goes.”
Title One pre-kindergarten coordinator Pam Meadows said she has seen an increase in the amount of out-of-pocket money pre-k teachers are spending in their classrooms since the state began experiencing multi-billon dollar budget shortfalls..
“They are buying more supplies for their classrooms,” she said.
This year the school district was awarded $9 million in federal stimulus money funneled through the state that went almost exclusively for teacher pay, Nobles said.
“That $9 million kept us from really having a catastrophic situation in the district because that allowed us to hire teachers we were not going to be able to hire,” Nobles said. “What bailed the Legislature out was that stimulus package. I don’t know what they are going to do next year.”
That’s bad news for Florida, which Bud Chiles contends, already has a poor track record.
On the “Worst to First” Web site, the organization cites the following statistics.
Florida ranks 49 out of 50 states in the percentage of uninsured children.
The state ranks 48th in the nation in average composite scores on ACT, a standardized college entrance exam.
Florida comes in at 43 in high school graduation rates.
The state ranks last in the nation on per capita spending on education but 16th in spending on prisons.
“From high school graduation rates, to the worst pay for teachers, premature death by infants, high teen crime and high incarceration rates, it goes on and on,” Bud Chiles said. “Unfortunately most Floridians are not aware of that.”
During his walking tour, Chiles is encouraging Floridians to volunteer at schools and health facilities and is pushing for political activism to seek change.
He has had some high-profile backing.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker at The Lawton Leadership Corps in Orlando in August where a campaign was launched to garner one million pledges from Floridians to push for children’s health care and education reform in the state.
An article on The Florida Children’s Services Council Web site reports that Clinton addressed about 300 high school and college students from across the state and told them the following:
“Intelligence and effort are evenly distributed. Just because 41 states have higher high school graduation rates than you do, you don’t think there are 41 other states where God made the children smarter, do you?,” Clinton was reported as asking. “Leadership today is deciding how to solve those problems and then going out and doing it…You can make a better tomorrow for Florida.”
The event garnered bipartisan support and was co-chaired by former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican, and two democrats, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, and former Florida governor and U.S. senator, Bob Graham.
The push also has the backing of more than 50 organizations that includes United Way, the Early Learning Coalition, March of Dimes Florida Chapter, Healthy Florida Families and the Children’s Home Society of Florida, to name a few.
Chiles said the state has shirked its responsibility to children and to education.
“We have a constitutional responsibility,” Chiles said. “Article 9 of the Florida constitution says Florida will provide a quality education. Well, we are not doing that.”