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'They'll know we're watching'

A Pinellas delegation brings a message to the Capitol, urging no cuts in public school funding.

Published May 13, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Eight-year-old Danny Stagnitta sat across from Rep. Frank Farkas on Monday, staring intently as the St. Petersburg Republican fielded sharp questions about school budget cuts.

When it was over, Danny had a question for his mother, one of several Pinellas County parents who had squeezed into Farkas' office: "Do you think he's lying?"

"I'm not sure," said Michelle Stagnitta, an answer that didn't satisfy her son.

"He kept saying, "I completely agree with you' like he didn't really agree," Danny said.

On the first day of the Legislature's special session, two dozen parents and children who drove from St. Petersburg to the state Capitol got a tough lesson in Florida politics.

They had come to put a human face on budget cuts they say will devastate their schools. They left wondering whether they had accomplished anything at all.

"An exercise in futility," Catherine Rushing said at one point.

Cathy Wilson disagreed. "Even if we don't change anyone's mind, at least they'll know we're watching."

The group certainly made an impression.

They wore T-shirts with messages like "Gov. Bush, don't leave me behind." They drew the attention of television cameras and double-takes from amused lobbyists and legislators.

The kids made an occasional ruckus as their parents trudged from office to office in search of sympathetic ears.

"Don't quiet them down," Rushing joked. "If they don't like noisy kids, tell them to fully fund education and we'll go away."

Most of the families were from Bay Point Elementary in St. Petersburg, a school slated to lose several positions to budget cuts. Several of the parents were among those who held signs last month at a school protest. For many, it was their first taste of political activism.

The trip to Tallahassee, where legislators are once again trying to craft a state budget, seemed a natural next step.

The day began in the office of Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who seemed genuinely thrilled to have a crowd of kids sprawled across his office floor at 9 a.m.

"I like your shirts," Fasano said. " "Taxation without Education.' That's a good one."

"We all came a long way with a message," said Susann Grasberger, Bay Point's PTA president. "We need more support."

Fasano pointed out that the Senate budget was considerably more generous to schools than the House plan.

"I understand your concerns," he said, "(but) I can't make any promises."

Before the group left, Fasano signed the children's shirts and handed out chocolate candies.

Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, followed Fasano's theme - that the Senate is the better friend to schools. He also showed off family photos and talked a bit about Florida's education system.

"I recommend you leave the Senate promptly and go over to the House," a smiling Sebesta said. "That's where you're needed."

It was in the House that the parents met with Farkas.

The group had picketed in front of Farkas' St. Petersburg office earlier this month and were still annoyed about not getting a meeting with him. They weren't sure whether he would meet with them in Tallahassee.

But Farkas gave them more than 30 minutes in a free-wheeling session.

"We're here for all the schools in the state of Florida," said Grasberger, who notified Farkas that she voted for him. "We need some help."

"We want public dollars to go to public schools," Stagnitta said. "We don't want vouchers."

Farkas nodded enthusiastically. "I absolutely agree with you."

Farkas said he has voted against the expansion of voucher programs, saying, "Our speaker seems to think it's a good idea. That's what we're up against."

The parents showed they had done their homework, peppering Farkas with questions about eliminating tax exemptions and giving school districts more flexibility.

"You're here to represent us," Stagnitta reminded Farkas.

"I understand. I agree with you," he said.

Later in the day, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd warned House members not to get caught up in dire warnings of devastation.

"You've all been subjected to the hue and cry that the education system is going down the drain, the end is near, and the sky is falling," Byrd said.

Then the House unveiled a plan to increase spending on public schools by $200-million over what it had originally proposed. Details were sketchy.

By then, the parents and their children had left for the long drive home.

- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 13, 2003, 02:01:16]

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