Pensacola, Florida
Sunday December 17th 2017

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New Statewide Conservative Education Group Forming

By Duwayne Escobedo

When Escambia County School Board member Jeff Bergosh walked the halls in Tallahassee last week to meet Florida lawmakers, including Senate President Don Gaetz, all wanted to know why the Florida School Board Association (FSBA) decided to join a lawsuit against them—again.

Bergosh, a three-term school board member and twice Escambia’s Legislative Liaison to FSBA, said the organization has lost all credibility, especially with its decision in August to challenge the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program that gives businesses state tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations.

“They are standing between parents and school choice,” Bergosh told them. “The Florida School Board Association has lost influence. Really, it has no influence.”

Bergosh is now the president of the board of the newly formed Florida Coalition of School Board Members, which offers a “conservative” alternative to the FSBA, but allows membership to be leaders in both organizations.

“The FSBA pays lip service to what its members want, really want,” Bergosh said. “We want to be a direct conduit from the parents and students to policymakers on the ground. We will foster and build relationships.”

Currently, the new group is about 40 or 50 school board members. Bergosh said that, over time, the group intends to build a larger organization that can carry more clout in Tallahassee, respond more quickly to concerns raised by parents and offer services like professional development to its members.

Two Different Approaches
Patty Hightower, Escambia school system’s current chairman and FSBA president, would like to avoid a war of words with Bergosh and the new conservative education association but doesn’t.

“I’ll probably get lambasted for saying this,” Hightower said. “But as many opportunities as you have to attend FSBA meetings…he has never gone to any of the meetings. People out there are not always on the same side. Some vote one way,  and sometimes they vote another.

“Tallahassee and the FSBA do what our membership directs us to do,” she added. “Sometimes people who maybe don’t understand the rules or don’t like the way they are want to start a different way to do things. Bergosh has his opinions, his thoughts and that’s his right and privilege.”

For Erika Donalds, a Collier County school board member with two children in the public education system, the coalition is a savior of sorts. She joined Bergosh, Linda Costello of Volusia County, Shawn Frost of Indian River County and Bridget Ziegler of Sarasota County as a director on the Florida Coalition of School Board.

First elected in August, Donalds ran for the school board that lacked any parents of public school children. She formed ParentsROCK or Parents Rights Of Choice for Kids to help families get more informed and involved in local and state education. While her local group packs school board meetings these days, she sees the statewide organization as a way to affect Florida education initiatives.

“We’ve gone from very little attendance to a packed room,” Donalds said. “They were not very welcoming to parent and community input.”

She sees the same thing going on with FSBA, especially since it joined the lawsuit against state lawmakers over the Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

“Personally, I believe strongly in accountability,” Donalds said. “The FSBA is asking for a complete end to accountability. We want accountability, but realize we need flexibility.”

Voucher Lawsuit
The new lawsuit challenges the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is expected to award nearly 70,000 students with vouchers this year. Of the 1,414 private schools that were part of the program during the last school year, more than 70 percent were religious schools, and 82 percent of students who received vouchers attended those schools.

The program gives vouchers to children from low- and middle-income families, and will expand eligibility to families of higher income levels beginning in the 2016-17 school year. Currently, eligibility is limited to students from families who make below 185 percent of the federal poverty level—$44,122 for a family of four—but will increase to include those who make below 260 percent of the federal poverty line—$62,010 for a family of four—beginning in 2016, the lawsuit says.

“Florida’s voucher programs are a risky experiment that gambles taxpayers’ money and children’s lives,” said Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, in a statement. “Our state’s taxpayers and students would be better served by investing to improve our lowest performing schools and helping all of the students who attend them.”

“We need to be the people’s choice,” Hightower added. “FSBA is not against parents’ choice. It’s our duty to make our schools the choice.”

But Gaetz, a Niceville, Florida, Republican and former Senate President, said the lawsuit is “ironically ill-timed and hypocritical” considering the accountability measures the Florida Legislature recently implemented and the fact that the lawsuit comes after the program was extended to students from different income backgrounds.

“It is only now, when the eligibility for scholarships has been expanded and when less-impoverished students can participate, that the School Board Association has discovered its constitutional indignation,” Gaetz said in a statement.

It’s a fight that Bergosh hopes to aid Gaetz and other lawmakers in the future.

“The (FSBA) is out to protect the system,” he said. “We’re out to protect parents and students.”

Donalds credits Bergosh for his leadership, so far, in gaining new members and establishing the organization.

“He has done a fantastic job in that,” she said. “Being a veteran school board member as well, I look forward to learning from him, for sure. So far, his leadership has been instrumental in getting us off the ground.”

WHAT: Florida Coalition of School Board Members Mixer
WHEN: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 11
WHERE: 200 W. College (corner of College and Duval) in Tallahassee.
SPECIAL GUESTS: House Representatives Erik Fresen and Manny Diaz Jr.
INFO: http://www.fcsbm.org/rally_in_tally

FCSBM Core Values
Fiscally Responsible
Champion for Parents’ Rights
Student and Community Focused
Balance of Accountability and Reasonableness in Assessments
Making Solution-Oriented Partnerships