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Roundup of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers

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

Tampa Bay Times — Consider electing state education commissioner

No issue is more important to Florida and its future than public education. Yet voters are two steps removed from directly influencing the state education commissioner, who is appointed by the Board of Education, and whose members are picked by the governor. The move from an elected education commissioner to an appointed one has resulted in less public accountability rather than more and has not worked nearly as well as expected. The Legislature should give voters the chance to decide whether to elect the commissioner once again by putting a constitutional amendment on the November 2016 ballot.

Cash-strapped schools, a yawning achievement gap, a deeply flawed system of overtesting and concerns about Florida’s version of the Common Core are just a few of the issues that make a close connection between the commissioner and the voters more important than ever. Florida’s Constitution makes it clear: “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the state of Florida.” Yet that fundamental value has been lost in translation with governors who have had other priorities, politicized the education bureaucracy and appointed commissioners who listen more to their appointed bosses than the public.

A bipartisan coalition of Floridians wants to make the commissioner an elected position again and return it to Cabinet-level status. For more than a century, Floridians elected the commissioner until a well-intended constitutional revision was put on the ballot 17 years ago. The idea, which the Times editorial board supported, was that giving the governor the ultimate authority over the education commissioner would make the position more professional and less political. It was also supposed to force the governor to focus on education and hold the state’s highest office accountable.

That hasn’t happened. Under Gov. Rick Scott, the position is as political as ever and yet insulated from the direct will of the voters. Look at recent history. Appointed commissioner Gerard Robinson wasn’t up to the job and was pressured to leave in 2012 after only a year. His replacement, Tony Bennett, had barely arranged his desk when he resigned within six months amid controversy and scandal from his former job in Indiana. The current commissioner, Pam Stewart, was once appointed as an interim and still feels more like a placeholder treading water rather than a bold leader.

Bradenton Herald — A focus on Manatee County’s top 2015 top issues

As 2015 draws to a close, a year-in-review of Herald editorials shows the Manatee County issues that stood out. One state political controversy also consumed a great deal of interest. The rankings are purely subjective, based mostly on the importance to both community and society — which are quite distinct from one another. The amount of newsprint they generated also played a key role.

Crime and child abuse should never make this kind of list. Unfortunately, though, the disturbing death of Janiya Thomas, her body found locked in a freezer her own mother delivered to a relative, gripped the community’s consciousness for months after so many Herald accounts of child abuse in the family.

The mother, Keishanna Thomas, still refusing to say a word about this, sits in jail on fresh charges of murder in Janiya’s death. This very, very troubling case brought to light new deep deficiencies in Florida’s entire child welfare system, one the state appears to be reviewing.

The 4-year-old Labrador mix named Padi earned global fame for sitting on death row for months while the politics of state law played out; finally, a judicial decision this month found Florida’s dangerous dog statute is unconstitutional. Paul and Jeanne Gartenberg, Padi’s human companions, led the community’s collective sigh of relief over the canine’s freedom from the threat of euthanasia over a bite on a child that may have been self-defense. The poorly written law is now targeted for clarification in new legislation that allows for due process. Thank goodness.

Diana Greene took over a beleaguered Manatee County School District fractured over the short but financially successful tenure of former Superintendent Rick Mills.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Daytona’s hiring deserves answers

With virtually no public discussion or notice, Daytona Beach City Manager Jim Chisholm recently hired the Rev. L. Ronald Durham for a $75,000-a-year job that has a nebulous title and responsibilities. It’s an open position that hasn’t been filled in years, wasn’t advertised, and for which no other candidates were considered. Durham says he didn’t ask for it, and he himself isn’t sure exactly what it involves.

What is going on here? The public that is paying Durham’s salary deserves some answers.

Right now, all it can do is speculate. And that invites some raised eyebrows.

For 12 years, Durham, who was senior pastor of Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Daytona Beach from 2003 until April, has been a leader in the city’s African-American community, as well as a friend and mentor to Mayor Derrick Henry. His official job title with the city will be “asset management director/special projects,” although those terms have yet to be defined. City spokeswoman Susan Cerbone told The News-Journal’s Eileen Zaffiro-Kean that Durham “will perform community outreach and other special projects assigned by the city manager.” She cited as one example having Durham “assist with the Orange Avenue reconstruction project by enhancing the city’s communication effort with the business owners.”

Why the city would need to hire someone now as a go-between on a project that began in 2014 and is scheduled to finish next summer is yet another question Chisholm should answer.

But the bigger issue is the open-ended nature of Durham’s job description. It has some believing that officials view Durham as a solution to City Hall’s diversity gap in hiring: Although over 35 percent of Daytona Beach residents are African-American, less than 19 percent of city’s 780 full-time employees are black. In addition, some minority and female city employees recently filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging harassment and discrimination on the job.

Durham told Zaffiro-Kean that he was contacted by the city manager about four to six weeks ago, which was around the time complaints about the city’s workforce diversity began coming to a head.

The Florida Times-Union — Cheers: Nonprofit program helps many minorities get great educations

Cheers to Focus on Excellence, the area nonprofit that continues to do amazing work in helping talented youths achieve their educational dreams.

Focus on Excellence uses a groundbreaking formula to identify area middle-school students with great academic potential. It then prepares those students to fulfill that promise through a challenging, enriching program that helps them receive scholarships to attend many of Jacksonville’s best private high schools.

After they graduate, the students are superbly prepared to attend college — indeed, many receive scholarships to enroll at some of the nation’s top universities.

To date, Focus on Excellence has supported the academic ambitions of 147 scholars who have attained an overall 3.7 grade-point average as high school students. And every student who has completed the Focus on Excellence program has gone on to attend a college or university.

The current freshman class of Focus on Excellence scholars, all set to graduate in 2019, has 11 students attending The Bolles School, Bishop Snyder High School, University Christian School and Episcopal School of Jacksonville.

Florida Today – Don’t hide sins to make you less human

It’s a sin to think you’re incapable of sinning.

If you’re driving during the holidays, I caution you to be careful out there. The roads aren’t just filled with drunk drivers.

Sometimes they’re filled with reckless pastors — such as they were 25 years ago in Brentwood, Calif. During the late ’80s, I was the pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church in town. No, this wasn’t the southern California Brentwood of O.J. Simpson fame. This was the sleepy rural Brentwood in northern California where strawberries were first bioengineered.

As our town was somewhat secluded, I would often drive a few hours to attend ministers’ conferences in one of the San Francisco area cities. It was on my return from one of those conferences that I found myself on the wrong end of the law.

Thus, it was about 2 a.m. one Friday night when I drove into the Brentwood city limits. There were no stoplights at the time and thus little to impede my anxious return home.

However, the town was full of stop signs.

The Gainesville Sun – Show local share of school funding

When Gov. Rick Scott touts a proposed $476 million increase for public education in his “Florida First” budget, he really means that it’s a “Local First” proposition.

Some members of his own party in the Legislature want to make that point crystal clear. It’s about time.

Scott isn’t breaking new ground in taking political advantage of Florida’s financial burden-shifting. While the Florida Constitution places direct responsibility on “the state” to provide for “high quality education,” the state government has long relied on local taxpayers.

In his 2016-17 proposed budget, Scott allocates $20 billion for kindergarten-to-12th-grade public schools — with just $11 billion of that coming from the state government. Furthermore, Scott would increase K-12 spending by $476 million — $426 million of which would come from property tax revenue collected through the “Required Local Effort.”

That idea doesn’t sit well with state Rep. Fred Costello, a Republican from Ormond Beach and a member of the House education appropriations subcommittee. At the very least, Costello wants the Legislature to pass a bill he filed to make apparent the sources of increased revenue for education.

Costello’s HB 751 would mandate that the state Department of Education calculate the amount of revenue generated each year by the Required Local Effort and share that information with school districts, whose boards officially levy the RLE and other property taxes. School districts, in turn, would have to publish the percentage tax increase or decrease as a legal notice — similar to what county and city governments must do.

The Lakeland Ledger — Muzzling the watchdogs

Since Congress created the first inspectors general for federal agencies in 1978, these in-house watchdogs have proved their worth again and again. Inspectors general have investigated the CIA’s inhumane “enhanced interrogation methods,” revealed abuses in the FBI’s acquisition of telephone and other records, and documented the selective enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service of regulations governing political spending by tax-exempt groups.

Given the nature of their mission, it is not terribly surprising to learn from inspectors general for several federal agencies that their work is being hampered by the unwillingness of the officials they monitor to provide some necessary information — despite the fact that the Inspector General Act requires that inspectors general have access to “all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations or other material” necessary to do their job.

The Justice Department has come under particular — and deserved — criticism for stymieing the work of its inspector general. Beginning in 2010, FBI lawyers argued that some records couldn’t be shared because of protections in federal law. In July, the department’s Office of Legal Counsel concluded that the inspector general could be denied access to some information in three categories: the contents of wiretaps, grand jury proceedings and credit information.

The author of that opinion, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Karl R. Thompson, concluded that the Inspector General Act’s requirement that inspectors general have access to “all records” must be qualified in light of the provisions of the federal Wiretap Act, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and Section 626 of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. His opinion said that the department could provide the inspector general with information protected by these laws for “many, but not all” of its investigations.

Miami Herald — Let 2015’s road map guide us this year

Shakespeare seemed to have written something quotable about most of life’s circumstances. On this New Year’s Day, we’re focusing on this one: “What’s past is prologue,” from The Tempest. The year that just ended left clear directives for the year just begun. Here’s a sampling from 2015’s instruction manual:

Traffic

Let’s keep the momentum going, maybe traffic will follow. Miami-Dade County made some necessary strides in deconstructing the governmental silos in which various agencies and officials labored, isolated. The county still has a lot to answer for after squandering millions of dollars raised by the half-penny sales tax for transit that voters approved with high hopes. Coming up with effective plans to get traffic moving while coaxing drivers onto public transit that actually goes where people want to go is the least it should do.

Liberty Square

Make. This. Work. Miami-Dade County, and specifically Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his housing honcho, Michael Liu, plan to raze this crime-plagued public-housing complex, a vestige of the county’s scourge of racial segregation, and rebuild it bigger and better for its low-income residents. The plan includes private housing, to encourage a greater mix of incomes, and retail space.

We’ll spare you the gory details, but needless to say, things have gotten ugly over a protracted contractor selection; residents’ complaints about the lack of information and their very understandable suspicion that this is just one more scheme to get rid of them. Promises have come and gone unfilled in too many poor African-American communities here. It’s incumbent on Mayor Gimenez to make sure that this isn’t just one more.

Civic engagement

Almost two years ago, South Florida was in the basement, ranked dead last, in a survey of volunteerism in 51 major metropolitan areas across the country. The Miami-Fort Lauderdale area limped in with a 15.3 percent volunteer rate.

Our advice: Any complaining about how screwed up things are, about how “somebody oughta do something” should be followed up immediately with a plan of action. Be that “somebody.”

Orlando Sentinel — School head plans 24-7 talent search

Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park, with more than 800 students in grades six through 12, is one of Central Florida’s top private schools. Recently its trustees named a new head of school, Byron Lawson, to take charge in July. Now assistant headmaster at St. Marks School in Dallas, Lawson will be Trinity’s first African-American leader since the school opened its doors in 1968. We recently spoke with him about Trinity and how he believes private schools can support their public counterparts in Florida. A video of our full discussion is at OrlandoSentinel.com/opinion.

Q: What was it that attracted you to the position of head of school at Trinity?

A: Everything. The size of the school. Its location. The reputation for excellence of its students. And more than a few faculty have a national reputation. And so I can’t imagine anybody not considering the head of school position at Trinity.

Q: Can you tell us about your vision for the school as its next leader?

A: I want to continue to grow Trinity’s reputation in this area. I want to continue to serve its students. But I also want to share what’s great about the school with … the education community, not just in Florida, but worldwide. There are such wonderful things going on here that I think could elevate learning all over the country. …

Q: How does your status as Trinity’s first African-American headmaster play into your goals?

A: … I believe in recruitment of talented people, whether they are faculty or students. I believe that, for the school to be at its very best, diversity of all voices matters. So we have to get off of the campus, to make sure that people … know what’s going on at Trinity. … [G]etting out and finding people who should be a part of the Trinity community — that’s how I became a student at Gilman School [a top private school in Baltimore], and I think that’s one of the ways I’ll lead at Trinity.

Ocala StarBanner — Gimmicks and graduation rates

Gov. Rick Scott has been all about gimmicks when it comes to the state’s community colleges.

He first pushed colleges to launch $10,000 degrees, and now is challenging them to ensure 100 percent of their students either transfer to a four-year university or graduate and land a job.

A 100 percent graduation/transfer rate is a good aspirational goal. Community colleges across the country have dismal graduation rates and Florida’s state colleges, with an average 43 percent rate, are no exception.

But Scott’s proposal lacks details and funding to raise those rates. And the governor doesn’t want colleges to increase their tuition or fees.

Florida’s state colleges would be better served with a comprehensive plan to boost graduation rates and the money to do with it — with the understanding that colleges that accept all students, by their very nature, are bound to have lower rates than selective universities.

Here in Ocala, we’re lucky to have a model community college in the College of Central Florida. CF has long been committed to working in all parts of our community to help students get the skills needed to land jobs.

The Aspen Institute has named CF among the nation’s top 10 percent of community colleges twice in the past half decade.

The Aspen Institute cited the nation’s top-rated community college, Santa Fe College in Gainesville, for having boosted retention rates through efforts such an early alert system to provide advisers that help struggling students that guide students to tutoring and study groups — and it is working.

Pensacola News-Journal — Help chart Pace’s future

With Christmas and New Year’s firmly in the rear-view mirror — unless your “true love” today plans to drop off 10 lords a leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a milking, etc. — we’ll take time to encourage some citizen involvement in the growing community of Pace.

A week ago, our Santa Rosa County reporter Kaycee Lagarde updated us on what many central Santa Rosans already knew: Pace is showing no signs of stopping the impressive growth it has experienced in the last 20 years. Restaurants are popping up, businesses are flourishing or on the horizon — a new supermarket is well under way to opening off Woodbine Road — and large and small subdivisions mean hundreds of new houses will be constructed.

Whew! Frankly, it’s been hard for us to keep up with all the news that is happening along the busy U.S. 90 corridor from the Escambia River east through Pea Ridge and on to Avalon Boulevard. While the frequently discussed topic of whether Pace needs to become Santa Rosa’s next city — the population likely would be more than Gulf Breeze or Milton — there is no formal movement to incorporate. Last year, Navarre residents, in a straw poll, rejected a move to become a city. To be sure, there are downfalls to getting the state Legislature to give its blessing to forming another city, but there are, as Lagarde deftly pointed out, advantages as well. If residents want added law enforcement, a Pace Police Department could ensure more patrols. Also, residents, including a city council, could have more say in how roads are maintained and services are provided.

But that costs money, which is always a concern. Those of us who have lived here for the past 15 years remember the fight to get a library in the community. With a city, we question whether there is the support for a city hall complex, let alone having dozens of city workers.

At the same time, we wonder what the next decade will mean for Pace. On its current population trajectory, it’s easy to believe Pace’s population could eclipse Pensacola’s. That could mean an additional bridge to Escambia County, a Pace-specific exit on Interstate 10 and other projects to handle traffic. (Head into or out of Pace between 6 and 8 a.m. and 4 and 6 p.m. most days and you’ll see a phalanx of cars making the two-county commute. Each house being built only adds to that traffic jam.)

The Palm Beach Post — Rubio sighted in Capitol; it must be a gun bill vote

A strange thing happened the other day in Washington, D.C.: Marco Rubio actually showed up for work.

These days, a Rubio sighting in the Capitol is rare, the birdwatcher’s equivalent of spotting a blue-footed booby. Like all senators who’ve run for president, Marco’s been away a lot.

The reason for his recent detour to Washington was to cast a very important vote affecting the security of this country, and of all the Floridians he’s supposed to represent.

The Senate was considering a law to prevent persons on the FBI’s terror watch list from buying explosives or guns. To most Americans, that’s a no-brainer.

Rubio showed up to vote against the bill. This was only one day after the mass shootings in San Bernardino.

The measure was defeated by the Republican majority, slaves as always to the NRA, which opposed the law. (Rubio isn’t the only GOP senator running for president who’s terrified of the gun lobby. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham voted against the watch list ban, too.)

In his prime-time speech from the Oval Office, President Barack Obama asked: “What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semiautomatic weapon?”

Political cowards can always find an argument. Rubio and others, including Jeb Bush, say they’re concerned about the accuracy of the government’s no-fly list, which is a part of the FBI’s consolidated watch list.

Panama City News-Herald — Pete Rose gambled and lost

Every gambler knows that the secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and what to keep — according, at least, to the country song made famous by Kenny Rogers.

The writer of those lyrics must have never met Pete Rose, who’s not just any gambler.

Rose, Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in hits and one of the game’s icons, has demonstrated again that he doesn’t know what to throw away — his habitual gambling on sports and his hubris — or what to keep, such as any sense of maturity and semblance of dedication to the game he claims to love.

Last week, MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred Jr., released a report on his consideration of Rose’s plea to be removed from the sport’s “permanently ineligible list.”

Rose was placed on the list in 1989 — in effect, banned from managing, coaching or otherwise working for major-league teams — for violating Rule 21. He remains accused of betting on baseball in 1985 and 1986, as an active player, and in 1987 as manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

In a game that has historically tolerated a certain amount of subtle rule-breaking, there is but one cardinal rule: no gambling on baseball. While the evidence against Rose in 1989 may not have proven his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, it was compelling and led Rose to agree to the “permanent” ban. He later confessed to gambling on the game in a book published in 2004.

Technically, the ban was permanent in name only. The Major League Rules enable someone on the ineligible list to apply for “reinstatement,” which Rose did in February.

Commissioner Manfred wisely agreed to revisit the case.

South Florida Sun Sentinel – Don’t gut Florida’s Sunshine Law

Over the years, Florida lawmakers have steadily chipped away at their constituents’ constitutional right of access to government by approving hundreds of exceptions to the state’s open-records and open-meetings laws. But now a couple of lawmakers are proposing to trade in their chisels for sledgehammers.

If their colleagues in the Legislature really believe in open government — starting with Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli — they won’t stand for it.

Bills filed recently by two Republicans, Sen. Rene Garcia, of Hialeah, and Rep. Greg Steube, of Sarasota, would create an escape route from accountability for state and local government agencies that illegally refuse to release public records. Their bills would eliminate the requirement in the state’s public records law that agencies reimburse the legal costs of citizens who successfully sue them.

Instead, it would be left to the whim of the courts to decide whether agencies would be ordered to pay up. There’s no standard in the bills to guide courts in this decision. Florida’s leading public records advocate, First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen, calls the prospect of citizens getting reimbursed “a total crapshoot.”

The group leading the charge for this change, the Florida League of Cities, has portrayed it as a “reform” that would stop lawyers from hitting the jackpot, at taxpayers’ expense, by ensnaring local governments in technical violations of the public records law. While a few law firms have profited from this strategy, courts have begun cracking down. And the impact of the proposals from Garcia and Steube would go far beyond the handful of bad actors that the league has cited. All Floridians would be punished for the mischief of a small group of lawyers.

The bottom line is that most citizens won’t take on governments that defy the public records law in court if those citizens can’t be assured they’ll recover their own legal costs. And, regrettably, there is no other way for Floridians to enforce the law than to file suit against governments that violate it.

Tallahassee Democrat – DOC must stop sexual abuse in state prisons

Women are being raped at the Lowell Correctional Facility, and the state of Florida has to stop it.

Both legally and morally, the Department of Corrections is obligated to respect the humanity of prisoners in the Marion County prison, no matter what they did to get there. The department itself is in chaos — with chronic staff shortages, the impending departure of a major medical services provider, lack of education and rehabilitation programs, rapid turnover among woefully underpaid correctional officers and crumbling facilities — but the brutal treatment of women at Lowell is as big a crisis as any of those woes.

Bigger.

The Miami Herald recently began a series detailing sexual abuse and other violence inflicted on prisoners at the institution, which, with more than 3,000 inmates, is the largest women’s prison in the nation. Former inmates, and some current ones, told of a sexual barter system that, on the outside, would be prostitution.

But it’s a felony for a prison staff member to have sex with an inmate. “Consent” — and we put quotation marks around that word on purpose — is not possible when one person has custodial control over another. Whether they duck into a broom closet with a guard to gain extra privileges, or because he threatens to have them written up for infractions that might get them thrown in solitary, prisoners can’t consent to sex.

Women told the Herald that if inmates complained, an internal investigation was likely to either exonerate the officer or be closed as “inconclusive” — just he-said, she-said. There aren’t usually witnesses to sex crimes and, if there are, credibility of convicted felons is easy to challenge.

DOC Secretary Julie Jones, the first woman to head the state’s biggest department, has fired scores of prison employees all over the state for brutality and cover-up of inmate abuse, among other illegalities. Some Lowell officers have been fired, reprimanded, suspended or transferred to male institutions.

The Tampa Tribune — Tampa’s Riverwalk a big piece of downtown’s revival

The wildly successful Riverwalk will mark another milestone Monday when construction begins on the final downtown stretch along the Hillsborough River’s eastern shoreline.

Workers will begin constructing a path that connects the Straz Center to Water Works Park to the north, where the renovated public park and Ulele restaurant have infused new life into that part of town.

When completed, walkers, joggers and cyclists will have an uninterrupted walkway stretching 2.4 miles from the Tampa Bay History Center on the southern end to the park on the northern end.

The entire $33 million Riverwalk project — paid for with a mix of city funds, private donations and grants — is already paying dividends for Tampa. With the opening in March of a stretch running beneath the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge, the Riverwalk immediately turned into a popular destination.

It now represents a key piece of the city’s downtown revival and is helping to attract more development. The Straz plans to build an entryway near the river as well as a waterfront restaurant, stores and amphitheater. A residential tower will rise along the river near the Straz and be home to 500 residents, adding to the 6,000 who now call downtown home.

And as the Tribune’s Jerome R. Stockfisch reports, developers are now interested in extending the Riverwalk north from downtown into Tampa Heights. A riverfront walkway along the western downtown shoreline is being contemplated. That will surely enhance the development prospects for that side of the river.

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 phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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