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Teachers send a message of unity

Hundreds join hands on the old Gandy Bridge to let Tallahassee know they will stay unified in their fight for more school funding.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 2, 2002

Hundreds join hands on the old Gandy Bridge to let Tallahassee know they will stay unified in their fight for more school funding.

More than 1,000 teachers joined hands over Tampa Bay on Saturday morning on the Friendship Trail bridge, sending a symbolic message to Tallahassee that educators are united in the fight for more school funding.

They sounded the familiar complaints of the statewide teachers union: Classes are too big; teacher salaries are too low; children need a head start on education through prekindergarten programs.

"We're giving more money to corporations," said Maureen Dinnen, president of the Florida Education Association. "Doesn't that money belong in education?"

But the teachers' pleas took on new relevance at Saturday's rally, given the political backdrop of this year's gubernatorial race. Polls show that education is not only the No. 1 issue, but Floridians say they are willing to pay higher taxes to improve public schools.

From a podium set up on the back of a flatbed truck in the parking lot of Derby Lane, where the rally began, state union leaders lauded Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride, who has received the union's endorsement.

The education plan he released recently includes money for reduced class sizes and a $2,500 salary increase for teachers. McBride would pay for most of his reforms with a new 50-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes.

Yet in the crowd, the gathering of educators from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties sounded more anti-Gov. Jeb Bush than pro-McBride.

Teachers questioned the worth of the FCAT, which is used to measure accountability and assign grades to schools, and they pledged to make sure Bush is not the first Republican governor ever re-elected in Florida.

"Hey, Jeb," one demonstration sign read, "what's your FCAT score?"

Teachers from High Point Elementary School, between Pinellas Park and Largo, created a banner featuring paintings of children and the words: "Why won't our legislators invest in us? All they do is test us!"

Maggie Calhoun, a retired social studies teacher at Osceola Middle School, walked the Friendship Trail, the old Gandy Bridge, with her former colleagues Saturday.

"I've been through the public schools, and I know what they can do," Calhoun said, "and they shouldn't be handcuffed."

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