Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 23rd 2014

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POVERTY AND RACE AREN’T EXCUSES When School Board member Jeff Bergosh hid four years ago behind the nom de plume “Godzilla,” he railed at District 3, the county district with the largest percentage of African-American and economically disadvantaged students, for its schools being a “drag” on the school system. Bergosh/Godzilla wrote on pnj.com, “Take a school (any school) from Santa Rosa or Okaloosa, with the same demographic makeup as ANY school from Escambia (free/reduced lunch percentage, ethnic makeup, poverty level, etc.) and Escambia holds its own or beats that other County school.”

The statistics for the Florida Department of Education reveal that schools with 95 percent or more minority student population and three-fourths of their students on free or reduced lunches can excel–maybe not in the Escambia County Public School District, but in other parts of the state.

There are 87 non-charter middle and elementary schools in Florida that have over 95 percent minority students that earned A school grades last year. There are eight middle schools that have gotten A’s three consecutive years. They are all Title 1 schools.

The Escambia County Public School District has 11 middle and elementary schools that have greater than 70 percent minority student populations. All have over 90 percent of their students on free or reduced lunch programs. Only three of those schools have gotten an A once over the past four years. Montclair Elementary dropped to a D the year after it received its A. Warrington Elementary slipped to a C the following year.

WHAT DOES “FROM” MEAN? That’s the question Assistant City Attorney Susan Woolf has been researching “from” for the Pensacola City Council. Can a city council member appoint someone to the council Redistricting Commission who does not live in their district? While it would seem odd that a city council person would even nominate someone outside his or her district, that is apparently what Councilman Ronald Townsend is contemplating.

Woolf gave the council two options to consider in a recent memo to the board. “From” can indeed mean from one’s district, or the council can decide the word is too ambiguous and ask a judge to tell them what “from” means. Her conclusion is that the city council members will have to appoint someone who resides within the districts.

Crystal Spencer, chairman of the Charter Commission that wrote the new city charter, says that the intent was for the member of the Redistricting Commission to be a resident of the district so that each district has representation.
In an email to Council President Maren Deweese, Spencer wrote that she had reviewed the language of Section 6.08 (b) of the Charter, as well as the Model City Charter, Jacksonville Charter, Tampa Charter, Hialeah Charter and St. Petersburg Charter. She said that the bulk of the language came from the Model City Charter and is almost verbatim with the exception of paragraph (1), and she recalled the discussion related to the intent of the commission being that each single district would be fully represented by an appointee to the Redistricting Commission.

“The language of our charter is mandatory and uses ‘shall,’” wrote Spencer in the email. “Further, the language is not ambiguous and states that the City Council ‘shall appoint one (1) member from each of the seven (7) Council districts of the city.’ The language is clear and is consistent with the intent, that each district shall have representation.”

The consultant to the Charter Commission, Robert Friedman, concurred with Spencer about his recollections. “My recollection is that the subject of residency requirements for office/appointments was extensively considered and debated on several occasions,” wrote Friedman in an email to Spencer that the IN obtained through a public record request. “Further, I recall that the majority of the Commission consistently argued and voted in favor of a residency requirement for elected and appointed positions, including the Districting Commission. The word ‘from’ was understood to explicitly require that each District would be represented by someone with a current residency in ‘each’ of the seven districts, assuring fair and equal representation for each and all of the seven districts.”

RICHBURG ALMOST PULLS FAST ONE Bob Richburg, former president of Northwest Florida State College, agreed to pay the college $103,000 as part of a plea agreement he made with the prosecution while under indictment in the Ray Sansom/Jay Odom case. Instead of making the checks out to the college, he broke up this obligation into two checks—one was made out to a scholarship created in Richburg’s wife’s name and the other to the James R. Richburg endowed teaching chair. The college rejected the checks.

FCAT FAILURES In January 1998, students in grades 4, 5, 8 and 10 took the FCAT reading and mathematics tests for the first time. The tests, administered for baseline data, included some performance assessment items and measured students’ skills in grades 4 (reading), 5 (math), 8 (reading and math) and 10 (reading and math). In 2000, third graders were tested for the first time.

School districts have had plenty of time to figure out how to prepare third graders to take their first FCAT test. Unfortunately, we aren’t seeing any improvement in Escambia County in reading scores for third graders over the past five years. In 2006, 72 percent of the third graders scored a 3 or above on the reading tests. Last year the percentage passing was only 71 percent. The math scores jumped from 68 percent at 3 or above in 2006 to 76 in 2008, Jim Paul’s last full year as superintendent, but have leveled off since, 75 percent in 2010.

Unfortunately, Escambia County public school students don’t maintain their test scores as their class progresses through the system, despite the district’s emphasis on FCAT preparation. The IN tracked the FCAT scores of the third graders of 2006 through when they completed the seventh grade in 2010.

Reading scores immediately dropped in fourth grade to 64 percent scoring 3 or above and bounced between 62-63 percent after that. The decline in FCAT math scores over the five-year period was worse–with 16 percent fewer students making 3 or higher on the test by the time they reached seventh grade.

CREATING ALABAMA JOBS EXPENSIVE Alabama and Mobile aid to ThyssenKrupp has hit over $1 billion. At 2,700 employees, Alabama taxpayers will pay more than $400,000 per job. That’s almost seven years’ worth of the average salary of $58,037 per worker that ThyssenKrupp pledged.

On April 27, the Mobile County Industrial Development Authority, which can grant sales and property tax breaks to industrial projects in unincorporated areas of Mobile County, voted unanimously to raise the total amount of tax abatements for the ThyssenKrupp AG steel mill to almost $612 million over 20 years, up from the $444 million approved in 2007.

Companies in Alabama are usually given property tax breaks for up to 10 years, but the Alabama Legislature passed a law when the state was trying to lure ThyssenKrupp to Mobile County allowing big industrial projects to receive up to 20 years of property abatements.

According to the Mobile Press Register, the original set of breaks was based on a $3.7 billion investment, not the $5 billion that ThyssenKrupp now plans to spend on its steel complex. State and local governments, including the authority, agreed to the abatements in the incentive agreement they signed with ThyssenKrupp in 2007.

ThyssenKrupp has also been able to take advantage of the state investment tax credit, which normally allows a company to deduct up to 5 percent of the cost of an investment each year for 20 years from its state corporate income taxes. However, as with property taxes, lawmakers gave ThyssenKrupp 30 years to recoup its investment.

CRIME UP IN 2010 The 2010 Uniform Crime Report was released April 26 by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. FDLE’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) system provides standardized reports on crime statistics based on data gathered from across the state.

“Florida has some of the best law enforcement officers in the nation, and I am truly grateful for their service to Floridians,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in a press release. “Having the lowest crime rate in 40 years is a remarkable accomplishment and further demonstrates the dedication that our law enforcement officers display every day.”

Unfortunately, Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties saw their crime rates increase, jumping 0.4 percent, 3 percent and 4 percent respectively. All three Panhandle counties saw their rate of cleared cases drop.