Pinellas FAST leaders call for action listen04/12/11 Andrea Lypka
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Budget cuts and the slow economic recovery are crippling Pinellas County’s public schools, affecting local jobs, affordable housing, and public programs. Organizers from a number of faith communities grilled public officials on these issues at the annual Nehemiah Action at the First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks on Monday, April 11. 3000 community members from 38 faith congregations came together as one group, called Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) and rated public officials on their commitment to affordable housing, education, jobs, and crime prevention.
According to FAST, currently in Pinellas 1 in every 499 households is in foreclosure. FAST leaders asked Pinellas County Commissioners if they would use Penny for Pinellas revenue to acquire land for affordable housing. But lawyers from the county and FAST differed on whether it was legal.
“I am new as a commissioner; I have been there for four months. I would hope and frankly, I would pray that you would not want me to stand up and say yes or no because it makes you clap or it doesn’t,” said commissioner Norm Roche.
St. Petersburg City Council members Steve Kornell, Karl Nurse, and Wengay Newton say they support the creation of a priority hiring ordinance. It would require that a percentage of new hires to be filled by local residents. Newton says he needs more community support.
“Since my arrival to the city council in ’08, I pushed hard for local preference. We spent a lot of money, but unfortunately the bidders of St. Pete failed to get those jobs… I have been there for a while; I know we have the funding in the municipality for this to take care of people within our boundaries if we do the right thing” he said.
Another issue is programs to help people who are incarcerated to reintegrate into society. Marty Brinsko of Holy Family Catholic School supports reinstating programs like Smart Choice that taught life skills and GED studies. It was eliminated because of budget cuts.
Brinsko says that 70% of arrests in Pinellas County of repeat offenders. The former comprehensive in-jail program Smart Choices reduced this alarming number to only 40%.
“The program also had an after care component to support the offenders after their release. Of those who successfully completed Smart Choices only 40 percent were rearrested compared to 70 percent of those who are not in the program. Smart Choice was saving the county 1 million dollars a year by preventing re-arrests,” she said.
Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coates was hesitant to promise to form a task force to find funding to restart the in-jail rehabilitation program.
“If that task force exists, I will work with that task force….I will be more than happy to work with them,” he said.
The county’s public schools have been underperforming for several years. According to a recent research by the community leaders of the FAST organization, poor readings skills result in low test scores and high dropout rates. Reverend Robert Ward from the Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church says poverty is no excuse for children not being able to read.
“We are asking the school system to work with us in getting 80 percent of our third graders at reading level within a two year period,” he said.
So far, Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Julie Janssen has declined several invitations to attend the public hearings. Deputy superintendent Jim Madden agreed to develop a plan to improve reading in 20 low performing schools with high populations of children from lower-income families.
You can find links to more information and our previous coverage of FAST on our website.