It was standing room only at the Half-Cent for Alachua Schools campaign kickoff at the Heartwood Soundstage Thursday night.
Ninety or so people came out to show their support for the Citizens for Strong Schools event. Among them were parents, principals, school board members, commissioners, mayors, business leaders and school advocates.
“We have got to fund our schools,” Mayor Lauren Poe said. “We got to provide schools that all of our children are able to learn in and don’t have leaky roofs or science wings that don’t work because that is what creates a thriving community for the next generation.”
The campaign is for a ballot initiative that will impose a half-cent sales tax increase, which would raise the county’s current rate of 6.5 percent to 7 percent, which is the rate in surrounding counties. If approved, it would last 12 years and bring in about $22 million per year to schools, according to the Alachua County Public Schools proposed project list.
During the event, Poe spoke to the audience about his history in education and why the schools need the funding. Gib Coerper, mayor of Alachua, sent a statement to be read and Matthew Surrency, mayor of Hawthorne, spoke about how the initiative affects his city too.
“We have 47 classrooms in Hawthorne that are going to be affected by this. We have security issues in Hawthorne that is going to be affected by this,” he told the crowd.
Michael Gamble, principal of Howard W. Bishop middle school, and Lilliemarie Gore, county teacher of the year, were the next speakers and described how bad the situation is from a first-hand experience.
“We have students eating lunch at breakfast time. Our computer lab right now is closed due to an overgrowth of mold directly in the ceiling,” Gore said. “Lastly, the portable situation at Idylwild is unlike anything I have ever seen in my entire 15 years of teaching.”
Attendees also picked up a lawn sign, a shirt for sale, the ACPS project list or fliers describing the initiative. They were also given the option to donate. Those who did raised $1,960. Online donations will stay open till next Sunday and the final amount will be matched by the Alachua County Council of the Parent Teacher Association.
The project list showed about 40 schools that need security improvements, maintenance, renovations or construction done. The average school building being 40 years old.
In the past decade, the state legislature has cut funding from Alachua County school facilities by about $170 million, according to the campaign’s website. This has left schools in disrepair, unsafe and unable to provide the education students need.
“Our facilities are in crisis,” district superintendent Karen Clarke said. “We got make sure that our buildings are able to support the learning that we are expecting out of our children.”
Kathleen Valdes, principal of J.J. Finley elementary school, has over 600 students in a school that was built in 1939. They need renovations to 26 classrooms and the auditorium, security improvements and to construct 16 new classrooms.
“The classrooms and buildings have never been renovated because we don’t have the money to do so,” she said.
Daniel Burney, principal of Westwood middle school, has over 900 students in a school that was built in 1958. They need security improvements, renovation to six classrooms and construction of 55 classrooms and a new media center building.
“This is a disservice. If we truly believe, as a community, that children deserve the best we need to put our money where our mouth is,” he said.