"Marion County is Moving Forward, And We're Starting With Our Children" -- Public Education Advocate Ray Seaman on Yes For Marion Schools

“It’s time to stop letting the shrill and reactionary few determine the fate of so many. Let’s show ourselves and our neighbors that for the first time in a very long time Marion County is moving forward, and we’re starting with our children.” - Ray Seaman

Ray Seaman is the Founder of the Awake the State movement and the Online Director for Progress Florida. I interviewed him back in April; you can read it here, or download the podcast here. We talked about a lot of different things, but five months later I was curious how exactly his Marions United campaign is going, as well as how progressives and conservatives approach Get Out the Vote efforts here in Florida. Here are his emailed responses to my questions.

Mike Eidson: To review the portion of our last interview about Marions United For Public Education, the education advocacy group that you co-founded, I asked:

Can you tell me about the school funding referendum that you and your group succeeded in putting on the November ballot, and, more broadly, what is it about the local level that is so important for democracy?

And you said:

I think folks understand that, in Florida, and my county, Marion County, is not immune to this, all counties in Florida have suffered tremendously deep cuts to their local public school systems over the last seven years. In Marion County, however, we've been particularly hard-hit. We're a large county, land-wise; I mean, the county itself is bigger than Rhode Island. A lot of people don't realize that. And we're one of the largest school districts in America.

Florida's kind of unique in this regard, because our counties serve as school districts. It's not subdivided beneath that, like it is in many other parts of the country.

In one year, this went from an idea on Ray's computer to something 100,000 people will vote on

So, the Marion County Public School District is in charge of educating 40,000 kids, spread out over an area bigger than Rhode Island. We're the largest employer in Marion County. We've got over 5,000 teachers and teacher aides and administrators and janitors. Maintenance people, bus drivers, etc. And, over the last seven years, because we're a landlocked county -- our property values aren't particularly as high as the folks who have coasts -- we have really born the brunt of these cuts more than many counties.

And currently, today, literally as we speak, we are the number-one violator of the class-size amendment in the whole state. We have some of the biggest class sizes. We're purposely violating the class-size amendment because it's actually cost-effective to do so, at this point. And Art, Music, Library and Media Services, and Physical Education have all been cut in half at all of our elementary schools. We have teachers that are literally sharing schools today.

Marions United for Public Education, which was involved in a very short campaign in 2012 to pass two little half-mil referenda on the August primary ballot that the School Board sponsored, those very narrowly failed, and the results were: 150 teacher aides and 160 first-year teachers temporarily lost their jobs, last year as a result of the failure of those two referenda. So, what Marions United started doing, last summer, is, we started meeting biweekly with different communities, stakeholders. We decided we were going to write our own referendum this time and we weren't going to wait for the School Board, which is historically very skittish about anything involving tax referenda, because Marion County is a conservative county. We historically reject most tax referenda that come our way.

But we decided we wanted to do this right. So what we ended up producing was a school-funding referendum that was double the size, actually, of one of the half-mils in [the] August [2012 primary ballot].  So we produced a one-mil school funding referendum that's specifically targeted to fund Reading, Art, Music, Library, Media, P.E., and Vocational Programs, in addition to hiring full-time state-certified teachers, so we can meet class-size standards, and also paraprofessionals, like teacher aides. And really, this is, undoubtedly, in my mind, having researched the history on this, the most progressive, most comprehensive ballot measure that our community has seen in 25 years.

It's a very big deal. Our community hasn't passed a property tax referendum for anything since 1987, so it's an incredible thing, and we were able to get it through our School Board and our County Commission, unanimously. And that's a pretty big deal because both of these bodies reflect the politics of the communities.  Both of these bodies are very conservative, very cautious when it comes to tax issues. But the situation had gotten to the point where you just couldn't deny this stuff anymore.

Now, we have something called the Yes For Marion Schools Committee, whose sole job it is to try to pass this referendum. And we're out there, campaigning in the community, as we speak.

To answer the latter part of your question, all this demonstrates why it's so important for progressives to be organizing at the local level, because we have very serious needs at the local level, throughout the state of Florida and, really, throughout the country. Particularly in a place like Florida, which is still, I think would correctly be argued, very gerrymandered at the state level, that the future of progressive ideas and the progressive movement is going to come from cities and counties. And that's going to bubble up and produce better candidates, better elected officials, who can then move into the state legislature and do bigger, better things there.   

So, the kinds of things that Marions United has done, although Marions United is by no means exclusively a progressive group, it's actually pretty bipartisan in its makeup, but certainly the policies and the ideas that we push I would argue are pretty progressive stuff. So, yeah, I think local organizing is the way to go, and it's absolutely critical to what we do down the road.

So, it’s been about five months since you talked about this with me. How has the campaign been going? What kind of positive and negative reactions are you getting from the community?

Ray Seaman: The Yes For Marion Schools campaign is going very well. We have dozens of volunteers making phone calls to key voters, and we’re pushing our message out online, in print, and in people’s mailboxes.

The response from the vast majority of voters we’ve talked to is positive. People know about the problems facing Marion County Public Schools and they genuinely want to do something positive about it. The most consistent concern we get - although its usually outweighed by peoples’ desire to restore programs and hire teachers - is whether our school district will use these additional funds as intended. This is of course one of the reasons why our referendum authorizes the creation of an “independent citizens financial oversight committee.” It’s going to be the oversight committee’s job to give the public a regular accounting of how their additional dollars are being spent. In turn, that makes it very hard for the district to divert funds elsewhere, which I strongly doubt they would do anyway. Superintendent George Tomyn has already publicly pledged to “restore art, music, library, and PE to 100 percent” and to alleviate overcrowded classrooms - which are the referendum’s two main goals.

Yes For Marion Schools ensured this mailer arrived the same day voters' sample ballots did 

ME: How do you appeal to voters about the county having the biggest class sizes, or how Art, Music, Physical Education, and Library and Media Services were cut in half with some teachers sharing schools, or how there need to be more state-certified teachers in the county? Do they understand the problems with these things as soon as you bring it up to them, or is there a degree of educating the public involved?

RS: We’ve had thousands of conversations with voters throughout the year and the first thing our volunteers ask is “Have you heard about the school funding referendum?” Almost always the answer is no they haven’t, and that’s understandable. We then say, “As you may or may not know, art, music, libraries, and PE have all been cut in half at our elementary schools.” To their credit, a majority of people (from all walks of life) know this part of the story well. Even if people don’t know the problem in its entirety, it usually doesn’t take much convincing to get a voter to sign our pledge to vote yes to restore essentials like reading, art, music, school libraries, PE, and vocational programs.

We talk to a lot of seniors as well, who conventional wisdom typically caricatures as selfish and uninterested when it comes to issues affecting children. That honestly hasn’t been my experience for the most part, and I’m really hoping we can start to bust that myth November 4th.

ME: You mentioned last time the importance of local issues in Florida politics and how that kind of organizing can bubble up to higher levels of government. We see it in your own local Awake chapters. What is some of the work those local chapters have been doing lately, and can I get your impressions on other local initiatives that have been in the news lately (some examples: the Lee County actions against standardized testing, the Collier County measures against fracking, the Orange County paid sick leave effort, the Indian River Lagoon activism in Martin County), or maybe something that isn’t on many people’s radar right now?

RS: There’s a lot of exciting things happening on the local level throughout the state, and that’s where you’ll find a lot of Awake The State activists and alumni these days. The Orange County earned sick time referendum, although symbolic thanks to Gov. Scott and reactionaries in the Legislature, passed overwhelmingly in the August primary. It’s a powerful reminder of the kind of progressive economic agenda people are looking for.

I’ve been following the Greenlight Pinellas referendum quite a bit as well and I’m rooting for its passage from afar. The Tampa Bay area remains one of the few - if only - major metro area without a serious investment in public transportation and that’s simply unsustainable. Something’s going to have to give and passing Greenlight would be a smart step forward for the whole region.

You mentioned a lot of the local uprisings against high stakes testing which is also really interesting. This is one of those rare transpartisan issues that unites progressives and conservatives - although for different reasons. Conservatives fear encroaching federal control in the form of Common Core State Standards. We can certainly debate how much of the fear is justified. Progressives want to free up teachers and rebuild the profession after years of abuse and neglect by mostly conservative policies designed to weaken public education. Either way, it’s brought both sides together to oppose the high stakes regime which now controls everything from teacher pay to school district funding. Lee County took a bold, albeit brief, stand. A teacher in Alachua County almost single handedly suspended one of these high stakes tests - the FAIR test. Needless to say we’ve only begun to see what this movement can do. I think after the election, particularly with a new governor, this movement is likely going to continue to push local school boards and the legislature to put the brakes on high stakes.

Ray also founded Awake the State
ME: What are progressives doing well, in terms of GOTV, canvassing, and phone-banking, and what do we need to work on? How do we compare with what you see from conservative and libertarian efforts? I suppose the role of money makes the entire process different for our opponents.

RS: Progressives have really embraced data driven tactics and put more resources into the field, both of which are really good to see. Big media buys are less of the equation, partly because its hard to measure the effects of whether expensive ads on network TV specifically move public opinion. This is a big change from what was happening a decade ago.

Amazingly, conservatives seem to be content with doing the opposite. They use their money advantages foolishly in my view on big media and don’t seem to emphasize field in the way progressives have. Rick Scott’s campaign for instance has spent tens of millions on TV all year, and as Steve Schale rightly points out, Scott can’t get out of the low 40s. Conservatives also strike me as more balkanized today than they’ve been in the past: Crossroads GPS does their thing and Americans For Prosperity does theirs and there doesn’t seem to be much cooperation. On our side, look at what America Votes is doing and you get a very different picture (disclosure: Progress Florida, who I’m proud to work for, is a part of the America Votes network of organizations.) Progress Florida is also working hard to turn out the progressive vote by mail via www.VoteByMailFlorida.org. We will also have two sites helping people find their early voting location and their Election Day polling places as well. We can’t say at this point what impact these efforts will have statewide, but I like our chances even in this tough midterm environment.

ME: What kind of work is left to do on the Marions United campaign before Election Day, on November 4th? And what do you think of the candidates running this year?

RS: What’s left for us is lots of phone calls to key voters and keeping up our momentum.

We unfortunately have no Democrats running countywide where I am, and the same goes for all of our state legislative seats. There’s a lot of apathy and cynicism here regarding our local political scene. Folks understand the status quo isn’t working, but they don’t comprehend what a viable alternative looks like yet. Based on my experiences in the Yes campaign, I think its going to take a rather diverse coalition of both pragmatists and progressives in both parties to construct a clear set of specific ideas that represent a serious alternative.

In terms of federal candidates, my friends Marihelen Wheeler and Dave Koller would make two great members of Congress and represent clear alternatives to their opponents, Ted Yoho and Rich Nugent respectively. I also have come to like George Sheldon who’s running for Attorney General. Sheldon comes from an amazing class of state legislators in the 70s and 80s most of who have long since left politics but whose bold and progressive spirit we desperately need again in Florida.


Ray Seaman can be found on Twitter and on Facebook.

Facebook Fan Page / Twitter / michael.c.eidson@gmail.com

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