Life and politics from the Sunshine State's best city

A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers

in Apolitical/Top Headlines by

A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:

Tampa Bay Times — Taxpayers assume risk, little gain for charter schools

Florida has invested heavily in privately run charter schools for years, and the payoff for taxpayers has been uneven at best. While some successful charter schools fill particular needs in local communities, too many have failed and research shows they have not outperformed traditional public schools in the state. Taxpayers also have lost millions in construction costs and other capital investments when charter schools have closed, and state lawmakers should revisit the oversight and funding for these schools.

The state has lost as much as $70 million in money for construction, rent and other costs when charter schools have closed over the last 15 years, a recent Associated Press analysis found. In Broward County, 19 now-closed charter schools received $16.5 million. In Hillsborough County, 17 now-closed charter schools received more than $5.4 million. In Pasco County, three now-closed charter schools received more than $900,000, and in Pinellas County three received almost $550,000. In Miami-Dade County, the Liberty City Charter that Jeb Bush helped establish before he ran for governor in 1998 received more than $1 million in capital money from the state before it closed with financial problems. Why should taxpayers be shouldering such financial risk and eating these losses for privately run schools?

It would be one thing if traditional public schools were flush with cash with no need for new construction or maintenance. In fact, the state’s 67 school districts received no new construction money for three years before finally dividing a modest $50 million last year (a handful of rural counties got another $59.7 million). Those facilities are used by more than 2.7 million students, yet far fewer charter schools that served about 230,000 students split $75 million. This year traditional schools and charter schools each received $50 million, and Gov. Rick Scott recommends public schools and charter schools each get $75 million for construction and maintenance for 2016-17. But a 50-50 split of the money is hardly fair. Pinellas County schools alone have more than $400 million in construction and capital needs over the next five years, yet the district has received just $8.1 million in construction and maintenance money from the state over the last five years.

The Bradenton Herald — Bradenton Housing Authority on good path to help stem homelessness

Under the leadership of Ellis Mitchell Jr., the Bradenton Housing Authority is ramping up its oversight of a private enterprise charged with the management of public housing. Only some 13 months into his tenure as BHA’s executive director, he has slashed the agency’s budget, saving $100,000 this year alone after recovering from a $500,000 deficit left by the former disgraced director. Mitchell’s new goal is to set aside those savings and launch a home ownership program for low-income city residents, this to lessen homelessness.

Homelessness is a plague on Manatee County, especially for parents and single adults with children. Many are either living out of their cars or staying with family or friends, their existence never secure. The Manatee County school district counts some 2,000 children as homeless in enrollment figures. That alone raises a disturbing societal issue — one that defies a solution.

First, though, Mitchell wants to ensure that the Bradenton Village Apartments is managed professionally and properly, and residents are protected from mismanagement. Complaints about how Telesis Corp. oversees the complex have been considerable — from mold and other problems. The city of Bradenton issued 140 exterior code violations dating back to 2009 and these were only resolved last June, but concerns remain about interior conditions and other structural issues.

The company owns most of the apartments and retains 95 percent of the rent from the BHA, but the housing authority reserves leasing rights to 160 of the 221 units of Bradenton Village for agency clients.

Mitchell came aboard as director in the aftermath of the leadership scandal that cost the former director, Wenston DeSue, and his ex-projects manager, Stephany West, not only their jobs but convictions of the theft of federal funds after the public agency descended into $500,000 in debt.

Mitchell has resurrected the agency in sound moves. His latest idea, which he announced Wednesday, is to fund a home ownership program in low-income neighborhoods to put homeless families into residences that afford stable housing.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Restore balance to Seabreeze area

The party’s not over for Seabreeze Boulevard in Daytona Beach. But it deserves to be dialed down a notch or two.

Seabreeze is a mixed-use area with restaurants and shops on the main drag and homes on the side streets. That’s a combination that other parts of the city strive to replicate. However, residents in the adjacent neighborhood have complained to city officials about noise, traffic and crime associated with late night/early morning drinking at the restaurants and nightclubs. The complaints have been ongoing and increasing, and came to a head this month at City Commission meetings, where city officials expressed support for changes.

The easiest fix, and a sensible first step, would be to move closing time at Seabreeze establishments back an hour, from 3 a.m. to 2 a.m., putting it in line with the rest of the county. Right now, Seabreeze represents Volusia’s last call — when bars close in other municipalities, some patrons travel to Seabreeze to enjoy another hour of drinking (whether they need to or not). So Seabreeze customers can be more liquored up than your average barfly elsewhere, which doesn’t always lend itself to responsible behavior.

Volusia County earlier this year amended its ordinance regarding bottle clubs in the unincorporated areas in response to police complaints that the after-hours drinking establishments were hothouses for civil disturbances and violent crime. Now, they are treated just like traditional bars and must close at 2 a.m.

Having a uniform closing time across the county, with possible exceptions made for special events, makes sense. Seabreeze shouldn’t be treated any differently, especially since it abuts a neighborhood. And closing an hour earlier may tamp down some of the overindulgence.

The Florida Times-Union — An aquarium could be the icon Jacksonville needs

Jacksonville officials have been seeking that iconic landmark that will visually identify the city to outsiders, much like the stunning Sydney Opera House marks the Australian city.

There, the sweeping white “sails” of the opera house signify the centuries-long importance of the area to shipping and the maritime economy. The opera’s overlapping, ivory-white domes are a focal point easily seen from much of the city, including the highways that span the harbor.

A similar landmark, which would label Jacksonville as a wonderland that has historically depended upon its watery components for its very livelihood, is nearing the three-year planning point. There are great hopes it will gain even more traction in 2016.

The idea of placing an aquarium on the river downtown is an inspiration whose time has come as people, through the JAX Chamber’s truJax project, are once again discussing how to brand Jacksonville. Having a museum honoring underwater life would underscore the city’s unique status as a place blessed with a wide variety of ocean, river and marsh resources.

All the more appealing is the fact that the aquarium itself and the surroundings, as envisioned by its supporters at AquaJax and the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, is a bold statement and could stand as a visual touchstone for the city.

From above, the 150,000-square-foot aquarium building — inspired by the shape of a manta ray — would arch into wings to soar over the surrounding area. Scattered beneath the wings would be pools where creatures such as rays could dwell.

Florida Today – Christmas season a time for reflection

During the Christmas holiday I find myself reflecting on the birth and teachings of Jesus and what it means to be Christian. I don’t usually wear my religion on my sleeve or discuss it publicly, as I consider it a private and personal relationship.

But on this one occasion, please allow me to share my personal thoughts.

Through my upbringing in the Catholic Church, I gained a pretty good understanding of the path Jesus wants us to take and the way he instructed us to treat others.

Recently I joined the Methodist Church so I could worship with my husband. The sermons adapt the Gospel readings to be meaningful and instructive and to guide us on how to live our lives in a manner consistent with Jesus’ teachings.

For the past two decades, my life has been spent in the political arena, first in the state Legislature and now as a political columnist and commentator. To do this, I watch a lot of news, read many papers and am active on social media.

In short, I’m immersed in it. Never have I seen the degree of anger, hatred, bigotry and intolerance so freely spewed and cheered.

To put it bluntly, it’s becoming difficult to watch what is going on in our nation and understand how it fits in with Christian values. Through the Bible, we learn that Jesus taught us love, tolerance and forgiveness and instructed us not to judge others. That message is reinforced numerous times throughout the Bible.

In Galatians 5:13-15 we were warned, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful state; rather serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The Gainesville Sun – Cheers and jeers

Just as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pulled an about-face on protecting our groundwater, we’re going to pull one on praising the agency.

We previously lauded the EPA for being the lone government watchdog that didn’t rubber stamp the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline. How quickly things change.

Jeer: The EPA, for reversing its position on the pipeline.

The EPA expressed “very significant concerns” over the pipeline’s path in an October letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which must approve a permit for the pipeline. The path is set to cross the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers, thousands of karst features as sinkholes and underground caverns, hundreds of acres of wetlands and dozens of springsheds that serve as aquifer recharge areas.

Yet on Dec. 11, the EPA stated its concerns were addressed after meeting with Sabal Trail representatives. As Frank Jackalone of Sierra Club Florida told The Sun, the sudden, 180-degree reversal raises the question of whether the pipeline’s powerful investors pulled political strings to get EPA to back away from its objections.

Something sure stinks, and it’s going to be the region’s drinking water source put at risk.

Cheer: The Florida Greenways and Trails Council, for recommending an Alachua County rails-to-trails project be funded.

The county is proposing to buy 6 miles of an abandoned CSX rail corridor for a paved, multi-use recreational trail. The corridor runs next to U.S. 27/41 from close to the Santa Fe River in High Springs to just north of Newberry.

The Lakeland Ledger — Email lapses create big risks

When Hillary Clinton expressed regret earlier this spring over her decision to thumb her nose at established protocol and conduct public business on a private email server while serving as secretary of state, apparently to avoid later public scrutiny, there was one point she was steadfast in making: no classified information ever passed through her private server. “I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email,” she said. “There is no classified email.”

That seemed unlikely from the start.

Clinton’s sole email address during her tenure was that private account; for her assertion to be true, we would have to believe that the nation’s top diplomat never once discussed classified information via email during her entire four-year term. That’s a dubious claim, to the say the least.

Perhaps realizing the sheer implausibility, Clinton later hedged her assertions, saying instead that “nothing marked classified” ever passed through her email.

Unfortunately, the public’s suspicions were borne out recently. According to a report in The Hill newspaper on Dec. 16, “A pair of emails on Hillary Clinton’s private server was indeed ‘top secret’ when they passed through her machine, intelligence officials have concluded.” The emails reportedly contained highly classified information about U.S. drones and North Korea’s missile program — material that could endanger U.S. security, and hence Americans, if it got out.

This matters. Because Clinton’s personal server presumably did not employ the same security as official government servers, she clearly risked exposing top-secret information to hackers. One shudders at the thought of the kind of sensitive data the Iranians, Russians, Chinese or North Koreans may have gotten their hands on.

The Miami Herald — Have a heart, Mr. Ortega. It’s Christmas.

On this special day, here’s our Christmas wish: that President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua finds it in his heart to help thousands of beleaguered Cuban migrants caught in a devilish geopolitical trap in Central America.

For weeks, some 6,000 Cuban migrants in Costa Rica, making their way on foot from Ecuador to the U.S. border, have been waiting for transit visas from neighboring Nicaragua, which abruptly stopped allowing passage last month.

Mr. Ortega has the power to put an end to their misery. Instead, he’s acting like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Nicaragua’s sudden policy reversal caught both the migrants and Costa Rican officials by surprise. Until that moment, Mr. Ortega’s government had routinely granted transit visas to thousands in a steady stream of such migrants taking advantage of the United States’ open-door policy for all refugees from Cuba who show up on the U.S. border.

It’s not hard to figure out the politics behind Nicaragua’s cruel action. Its left-wing government has close ties to the Castro regime in Cuba, which wants to pressure Washington to end the refugee policy that favors Cubans, saying it encourages illegal emigration. A manufactured humanitarian crisis in Central America suits that purpose perfectly.

To underscore the point, the Ortega government points the finger of blame at the United States — of course. “The situation should be resolved not by Central America but by the United States since it is the one that has prompted many Cubans to want to try to get to it,” Nicaraguan Deputy Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said recently.

The Orlando Sentinel — Jones High’s physics void hurts pupils

Suppose you held a convention for the more than 9,000 U.S. college physics and astronomy instructors. The number of African American or Hispanic women attending would be less than the full complement of a big-time college football team.

Or perhaps you wanted to send Christmas cards to America’s physics faculty. Only about 2 percent of the cards would arrive at African-American homes.

The numbers are stark.

At Jones High, however, the situation reduces to two untenable numbers: three and zero.

As in, for the past three years, zero students at the Orlando school have cracked open “Conceptual Physics, Florida Edition,” because Jones hasn’t enrolled any pupils in physics courses. Even if there were students, there isn’t a physics teacher on hand to explain the meaning of it all.

That sound you heard was Neil deGrasse Tyson’s head exploding in an incredulous big bang.

As if the absence of physics courses isn’t bad enough, an Orange district administrator could only conjecture when asked by the Sentinel about the glaring hole, hypothesizing that too few students in annual course surveys were keen on taking physics classes.

It’s unconscionable that district officials ignored Jones’ black hole, considering that STEM is the standard now pushed from Tallahassee — even if Jones’ stakeholders didn’t abhor the physics vacuum. School and district officials mustn’t wait to plug the physics hole.

Around the nation, the issue often is access. Yet, most every traditional school in Central Florida offers physics, state data show. That includes Orange County schools like Evans High with demographics comparable to Jones — whose student body is largely black and from low-income families. Evans enrolls 116 students in various physics courses.

Lack of exposure in high school to physics contributes to lower numbers of minorities pursuing physics degrees. It shouldn’t take an apple to drop on district officials’ noggins to understand the gravity of how Jones pupils are being robbed.

The Ocala StarBanner — Feds taking aim at drones

If you’re one of the estimated 700,000 Americans to whom Santa Claus delivered a drone this Christmas, be aware Uncle Sam also left something under the tree for you: a federal mandate.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday implemented new regulations that require all drones weighing between a half pound and 55 pounds to be registered with the government. Plus, owners must pay a $5 registration fee. Parents will have to register on behalf of aspiring pilots under the age of 13. Failure to register or improper use of a drone could carry a civil penalty of up to $27,500, and criminal charges could cost up to $250,000 and three years in prison.

There hasn’t been that big of an overreaction since Rudolph’s shiny nose got him excluded from reindeer games.

There are legitimate concerns about drones, primarily regarding privacy: the small, quiet, unmanned craft can be fitted with cameras and surreptitiously take pictures or video while hovering over private property. Safety also is an issue. Drones can interfere with larger, fixed-wing aircraft at low altitudes near airports, and some fear they could be rigged with firearms or explosives and deployed as weapons.

For the vast majority of owners, though, drones will be toys used for purely recreational purposes, much the way hobbyists have enjoyed radio-controlled airplanes and model rockets for decades — unlicensed, we might add, until Monday, when they too were included in the new regulations, apparently for the sake of consistency.

The Pensacola News-Journal — Parades aren’t family friendly

As a resident of Pensacola since 1978, it is a family tradition for ours to attend the downtown parades.

Mardi Gras, Fiesta, Christmas; if there was a parade we were always there to watch the beautiful floats go by.

Now as a mother of two young girls I want to carry on the tradition for them to enjoy what this wonderful and beautiful city has to offer.

Unfortunately, due to the increase of partying (alcohol, smoking, drugs, cussing, pushing, etc.) the events have become unsafe. In all reality, there is nothing we can do about the cussing and pushing; however, it is time for Pensacola to make a change along the parade route and designate a family zone, which would be free of alcohol, smoking, drugs, etc.

I propose the mayor of Pensacola and our county commissioners provide an area along the parade route free of these issues to keep people safe, and keep our kids away from the partying. While I understand and accept one purpose of the parades is to bring people to downtown, which is great for the local economy, I myself spent $75 for dinner at a downtown restaurant before the parade. Loading coolers full of beer and other alcoholic drinks is unacceptable.

Please City Council, Mayor Ashton Hayward, county commissioners, parade board, Fiesta, and all the krewes join and support Pensacola residents in providing an alcohol-free and smoke-free area along the parade route for kids and families.

The Palm Beach Post — Computer coding as a foreign language is a bad idea

Foreign languages might have an entirely new definition thanks to proposed legislation in Tallahassee.

State Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, has proposed a bill that will allow high school students to substitute computer coding classes for their foreign language classes. If his bill passes, high school students can take computer coding to satisfy the two required foreign-language instruction credits. Ring, a former

That may be, but at what cost?

Ring’s proposal (SB 468) has merit in that our public schools should adapt to the needs of a modern society, and computer coding is becoming an important skill to learn. Technology is a growth industry, and schools should be preparing our students for high-paying, fast-changing jobs in that sector.

The proposal — which passed the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee by an 8-2 vote on Dec. 3 — sounds good on its face, but there are some rather obvious concerns.

Teaching computer coding should not come at the expense of foreign languages. Ring claims that it is not, and defends his bill as innovation without harming the current curriculum. “We’re not replacing foreign language,” Ring said to members of the Senate panel. “We’re saying computer language should be in the language initiatives, in the language disciplines.”

But if coding can replace a class in French or Spanish, students following that path may ultimately avoid taking, and learning, another language. As others have noted, the school day is not getting longer. If something is added to the curriculum, something is going to be replaced. If a student can escape language classes by taking computer coding classes, then we suspect that many will likely avoid learning a language.

The Panama City News-Herald — Holidays and family

Dear Dave,

I haven’t spoken to my mom and sister in more than six months. Over time, I realized we have a real clash of moral values that has led to arguments and hard feelings. Lately, with it being Christmas season and a new year just around the corner, I’ve found myself wanting to navigate things a little better and stop avoiding them. It’s been mostly just between myself and them, so my wife and kids are pretty insulated from the ugliness. Do you have any advice for handling situations such as these?

Dave

Dear Dave,

Well, the good news is it doesn’t sound like you’ve had to spend a lot of time with them. So their influence over you and your household has been minimal. Still, things like this are painful. These are people you love, even if they are hard to get along with or understand.

I’m not a family counselor, but my initial advice would be don’t try to change them. And don’t take discussions too deep. If you get together, just keep things simple and on the surface. To the extent they try to invade your family, that’s where you have to put up a good solid boundary. You have to protect your family and try your best to keep bad influences at a distance. But I don’t think you’re going to fix them. Probably the best thing you can do is model sanity and reason in front of them.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel – Some progress, some missteps, at Memorial Healthcare System

In the search for a new chief executive, the South Broward Hospital District took a good step last week in agreeing to interview all four internal candidates — and perhaps all external candidates — in public view, as required by Florida’s Sunshine Law.

The district’s board members also took to heart the legal advice of outside counsel and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, whom they hired to help handle the Sun Sentinel’s request to see the names of the 14 candidates identified by a search firm.

“The selection of a CEO is the highest form of public business that you could take,” LeMieux said, citing statutes and case law. “Those documents are public record.”

However, even as the board that oversees Memorial Healthcare System expressed its commitment to transparency before an overflow crowd of doctors, nurses and community stakeholders Wednesday evening, disturbing undercurrents surfaced.

For one, the search firm hired to perform a national search said it wouldn’t reveal the external applicants’ names because they are “trade secrets.” Before making anything public, Korn Ferry representatives said they first will see whether anyone wants to drop out. The consultants suggested half of the 10 external candidates might withdraw.

That may well be true. Agreeing to participate in a public search for a high-profile, high-paying job may prove to be too uncomfortable for some people. But we question, as has been suggested, whether prospects would face retribution or lose their jobs if identified.

Think about it. If a high-performing, out-of-town CEO tells her board that a search firm called to see if she might be interested in running a great hospital system in South Florida for as much as $1 million per year, do you think the board’s first reaction will be to fire her? A counter-offer is a better bet. That is, if the candidate is of the quality that Memorial, a government health care system, is paying the search firm $330,000 to identify.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Leave public records law alone

Changing just one word in Florida’s public records law could make it a lot easier for government to cover up waste, incompetence and corruption, while making it financially risky for citizens to hold agencies accountable.

Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, have little bills that would change “shall” to “may” in the statute governing the awarding of attorney fees in public-records cases. The Florida League of Cities backs the change, which Steube says is intended to combat frivolous, harassing or even deceptive demands for public information.

As journalists, we’ll admit to having a dog in this fight. Newspapers, broadcasters and online news operations make a lot of public document requests.

But let’s be clear: This is not about news media access, it’s about all 20 million Floridians being able to look at the public record. And besides, big news operations have attorneys on retainer and can afford to fight.

Chances are, you can’t – and you shouldn’t have to gamble on the cost of making public officials obey the law.

Current law says, “If … the court determines that such agency unlawfully refused to permit a public record to be inspected or copied, the court shall assess and award against the agency responsible, the reasonable costs of enforcement, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.”

The bills filed this week would change “shall” to “may” in the statute. That makes it a gamble, if you have to take your clerk of court, mayor’s office or county commissioner to court over a deliberate, illegal refusal to produce public documents.

“There has been frivolous litigation for the most mundane issues,” said Steube, an attorney. “In fact, there have been law firms that try to set up a city, with people who’ll demand to see everything on an employee’s desk and if they don’t immediately comply, the city gets sued.”

The Tampa Tribune — Proposal to help special-needs children achieve life-long success is deserving of support

Florida lawmakers have a chance this legislative session to improve the prospects for children with developmental delays and disabilities.

With the strong backing of Senate President Andy Gardiner, a measure to improve the state’s Early Steps program has passed a Senate committee on its way to being heard during the full legislative session that gets underway next month.

The bill would expand Early Steps eligibility and implement accountability standards that ensure the state is serving the children in need of help during the important preschool years.

Lawmakers should support the measure.

The program, as Gardiner says, is “critical to establishing Florida’s complete cradle to career pathway to economic independence for people with unique abilities.”

Gardiner, the parent of a special-needs child, says it’s important to help children transition from the Early Steps program to the services provided by public school districts.

Early Steps is an outgrowth of the 1975 federal Disabilities Education Act that ensures children with disabilities have the education opportunities available to all children. The program offers services to children up to three years old who have disabilities or developmental delays. There is no financial standard for eligibility, making the program available to all families who might benefit.

The measure passed recently by the Senate committee would establish statewide standards and procedures for determining eligibility and support plans. It would require the Department of Health to evaluate the program each year and report to the governor and Legislature, a key accountability measure.

Gardiner, a Republican from Orlando, is relentless in his pursuit of legislation that can help the state’s special-needs children and their families.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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