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    Handful of area educators jump from the GOP

    The public switch shows dissatisfaction with the governor and support for Bill McBride.

    By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 9, 2002


    LARGO -- The veteran educators gathered in a small conference room Thursday, some chuckling and some somber as they pulled out pens and voter cards to publicly leave the Republican Party most of them had embraced for decades.

    "Our class sizes are ranging from 37 to 38. You can't teach 38 students. You can barely even put 38 chairs in the classroom," said Tarpon Springs High School media specialist Kathy Bell, a Republican since 1961 who attended the elder George Bush's presidential inauguration.

    Scott Rose, former Pinellas County Schools superintendent and a Republican since 1976, said he thinks Gov. Jeb Bush has short-changed schools on funding and established a school grading system that punishes schools with low-income students.

    "There's just a refusal to listen," said Rose, a former Largo High School teacher who was Florida Superintendent of the Year in 1988.

    The public party switching was organized by the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, part of the state teachers union backing Democrat Bill McBride for governor.

    PCTA executive director Jade Moore said he wants to persuade Republican and independent voters to switch to the Democratic Party by Monday's deadline so they can vote for McBride in a Democratic primary that also includes Janet Reno and Daryl Jones.

    Moore said "hundreds" of Pinellas school employees have become Democrats in recent months to ensure they can vote for McBride in the Sept. 10 primary.

    Bush is campaigning hard on his efforts to improve Florida's schools, touting rising test scores and new accountability. His campaign manager, Karen Unger, dismissed the handful of party switchers Thursday.

    "I don't think it will be a phenomenon in the campaign," she said.

    The five Pinellas educators publicly switching parties Thursday complained of Bush's emphasis on school grading and testing. They claim he squandered budget surpluses on corporate tax breaks instead of pumping more money into schools. They wanted to help McBride, a Tampa lawyer with kids in public schools.

    Although his calls for more investment in Florida schools mirror the platforms of Reno and Jones, the educators said McBride has offered the most specific education funding plans -- including a tax increase on cigarettes -- and has the best shot at defeating Bush.

    "What Jeb Bush's education plan is doing to principals and teachers and parents and students is criminal," said Janey Ball, a lifelong Republican and teacher at Sawgrass Lake Elementary School in St. Petersburg. "The pressure and the stress are becoming unbearable. We're getting no respect for putting our lives and our souls into this."

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