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Jacksonville groups meet to speak out on the future of education

A couple of initiatives are raising dropout age and increasing local control of budget

Jacksonville organizations interested in having a strong education system agreed Friday to take an array of issues back to their leadership to see if the groups can join forces on pushing those matters here and in Tallahassee.

The organizations met during the first Jacksonville’s Education Legislative Agenda meeting at the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership. Save Duval Schools, the Community Foundation, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund and the United Way of Northeast Florida sponsored the meeting.

Deborah Gianoulis, chairwoman of Save Duval Schools, said the purpose of the meeting was to hold the state accountable for public education.

“Florida needs to fund quality public schools to build the economic base that will produce jobs,” Gianoulis said.

Some of the organizations represented at the meeting were the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce, NAACP, The Bridge of Northeast Florida, The Boys and Girls Club of Northeast Florida, Publix groceries, Early Learning Coalition, state Department of Juvenile Justice, Communities in Schools, Duval Parent Teacher Association and the Jacksonville Urban League.

The organizations agreed to ask the leadership of their respective organizations about adding their voices to five issues:

- Raising the dropout age to 18.

- Having equal accountability for private schools receiving students with vouchers.

- Making high schools accountable under the new grading formula and not the old one, which only considers Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores.

- Reducing the amount of unfunded and under-funded mandates.

- Increasing the district’s local control of its budget.

Members of the Chamber of Commerce would not commit to opposing Gov. Rick Scott’s budget proposal, which calls for cuts in state education spending, including a $91.4 million reduction to the Duval school system.

Mike O’Farrell, lobbyist for Duval County Public Schools, told the group he and other lobbyists believe lawmakers have targeted public education.

“We believe there’s a concerted effort to just, if not do away with, severely fragment the public school system through the expansion in choice, through the reduction in dollars,” O’Farrell said. “It’s really going to take a lot of support from folks like you to turn this around.”

Duval Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals told the leaders the district is working hard to be fiscally efficient. The district staff has completed a three-month budget analysis that it will present to the board within the next week, and the district is in the middle of a comparative analysis of its finances by the nonprofit group Education Resource Strategies.

School Board Chairman W.C. Gentry called the Legislature an “irresponsible” body, which “refuses to fund education.”

Gentry said he would approach his fellow board members with an idea to provide a high quality education but to only provide services until the state’s dollars dry up.

“And when the money runs out, we close the schools,” Gentry told the leaders.

He suggested having school for four days a week or ending the school year after the FCAT testing.

“And then the community, needless to say, will step up and say ‘wait a minute, what about my kids,’ ” he said. “I think it’s time we stepped up and did something very radical.”

But Melissa Kicklighter, president of the Duval Council of PTAs, cautioned against punishing parents for any perceived failing on the part of the state.

The group plans to meet again next month to see what each organization’s leadership would commit to.

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