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    School Board lobbies lawmakers on funding needs

    Three members patrol the hallways of the Capitol, seeking a sympathetic ear in their fight for budget dollars.

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 29, 2003


    TALLAHASSEE -- It is late afternoon and Tom Anderson, the rookie Pinellas legislator, has had 20 meetings with people who want his vote.

    Now he is face to face with three determined members of the Pinellas County School Board. They hand him seven pages of numbers and "talking points" that speak ill of the education budgets proposed by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature.

    "We're just swamped with material," says Anderson, the former Dunedin mayor, pointing to a foot-high stack of papers on family and elderly issues. He makes it clear that education is not his area. He wishes people would keep their points to one page.

    "If they think I'm reading this, they're dreaming," he says, smiling.

    School Board member Carol Cook seizes the moment.

    "Then listen," she says, politely focusing her student like the teacher she once was.

    What follows is a 20-minute version of the fiscal tale of woe that the School Board took hours to discuss last week. Cook and fellow board members Mary Brown and Mary Russell talk fast, but later conclude their message is lost on the besieged Pinellas legislator.

    Such is the life of an amateur lobbyist in the sometimes brutal hallways of Tallahassee. The Pinellas contingent, which also included board members Jane Gallucci and Linda Lerner, were among more than 300 Florida school officials who spent their spring break at the Capitol pleading for better funding.

    "If we don't get more money for education, our new motto will be, 'Stack 'em deep and teach 'em cheap,"' said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

    But how to stand out from the crowd?

    School Board members this week vied against the clatter of county officials with dire budgets of their own, not to mention 3,000 angry doctors clamoring for medical malpractice reform.

    All of them have stepped into the muck of an epic standoff between a Florida Senate that is searching for more revenue and a governor and House that want the state to "live within its means." Many expect the legislative session to spill into July, a nightmarish thought for school districts, which start classes in early August and need time to plan their budgets.

    If there is a bright spot, it is that Pinellas voters, without intending it, have selected a School Board that doubles as a single-minded lobbying force. Back home at their meetings, they spend long patches of time squabbling over points of order and accusing each other of rudeness. But thrown into action this week in Tallahassee, they morphed into a team.

    There was Gallucci, a six-year veteran, who knows dozens of Capitol players well enough to greet them with a kiss and a hug. Cook, elected in 2000, often took the lead in meetings.

    Lerner, on the board since 1990, played the cheerleader, telling lawmakers how much they meant to education.

    Brown and Russell, still new to the board, chimed in as needed, often with anecdotes from parents and teachers.

    Lobbying can be frustrating, but it seems to help, the group said.

    "We're not up here to clobber them. We're here to say we need their help," said Cook. "I think if we weren't here, it would make a difference."

    The group converged Thursday on the spartan office of state Rep. John Carassas, R-Belleair, the father of two girls, one born just five weeks ago.

    The board members, all mothers, cooed over baby Sophia's pink-framed picture, then eased into business.

    On this and other stops, they pointed out that Bush's budget for education would leave the district $21-million "in the hole."

    They cited high insurance costs, rising gasoline prices for school buses, costs for new schools and minimal raises for teachers and staff.

    They wanted support for legislation that would give school boards the power to restore a property tax that was removed by Bush in 2001 -- a half mill or 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed valuation. It would raise an extra $22-million in Pinellas.

    They also wanted legislators to be careful as they implement the class size amendment approved by voters in November. If art and music rooms are counted as classroom space, the district may be forced to use those rooms for regular classes, board members said.

    They told Carassas it had taken years to put art and music rooms in all but two of the county's elementary schools. "We worked so hard to get them we really want to keep them," Brown said.

    "I know, I know," said Carassas, a lawyer and the son of two retired teachers. His wife, Kathy, also is a Pinellas teacher. The board members count him as a "friend of education."

    "We are looking for people like you who absolutely understand the issues ... and to speak up to the leadership in the House," Lerner said, inviting the young Republican to flirt with political suicide.

    Still, Carassas tells them he will "keep fighting up here. I'm not a friend of education for nothing."

    Later, the board swarms the office of state Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who once defied party leaders by voting against Bush's A+ Plan. Board members recount how his father, U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, got a call from Bush's office complaining about his son's vote, and how the governor was told never to make such a call again.

    If there was a purple heart for "friends of education," the School Board would award it to the younger Bilirakis.

    But as they circled his desk Thursday, he showed no signs of another revolt.

    There's not much hope in the House for the 50-cent property tax the board wants, he said. "But you know we really haven't had those discussions yet, and I may be in on those discussions when they happen."

    A glimmer of hope.

    "We're looking to you, Gus," Lerner says, filling her role as ego booster.

    "I know, I know," the legislator says. "Public education's very important to me. It's close to my heart."

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