Florida editorial roundup

By: The Associated Press
June 1, 2016 Updated: June 1, 2016 at 1:00 pm
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Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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May 27

The Florida Times-Union on drilling exploration at Big Cypress National Preserve:

Dear National Park Service,

We must offer a profound apology to your learned colleagues there at the park service for our clear misunderstanding of your agency's mission.

We were under the erroneous assumption that one of the primary goals of your service was to safeguard pristine wildness for the sake of future generations; to ensure that our grandchildren and, indeed, our great-great grandchildren had the opportunity to witness the marvelous wilderness and wildlife that make this country — our America — so special.

Obviously we were mistaken.

How else can it be explained that the park service approved a plan by a Texas company, Burnett Oil Co., to explore for oil and gas deposits in 70,000 acres of land within the pristine Big Cypress National Preserve?

The company's "explorers" will create an estimated 1,000 miles of roads in a previously roadless area where they will deploy mammoth "thumper" trucks to pound the ground endlessly to see what lies underneath.

MAGICAL THINKING

But thankfully the Big Cypress, immediately adjacent to Florida's Everglades, a designated World Heritage Site, would have no lasting damage from the incursion, the park service concluded.

And neither, presumably, would the nine federally endangered species that live there.

This certainly sets our minds at rest as we feared the worst. Wouldn't you feel reassured based on the strident denunciation of the plan by so many environmental groups, as well as the Seminole nation, which has, after all, lived in the area for several hundred years?

Those silly tree-huggers!

Perhaps our misunderstanding was based upon antiquated information, as is so often the case.

In fact, in checking our records we noted that one of our clipped articles upon which our beliefs were founded was, indeed, very old. One hundred years, to be precise.

We should have known to never depend on something so hoary as this wording, saying the purpose of the National Park Service was to:

"Conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment for the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

After all, that was written in 1916, part of the document signed by then-President Woodrow Wilson to establish the National Park Service as an office of the Department of the Interior.

An obvious antique — both Wilson and the document!

Yet even more recent information seems similarly tainted in light of the park service's most recent action. Take, for example, another clipping we found that was much later than the aforementioned one — this time from the 1960s.

But it, too, contains the same flawed logic:

"If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."

What was President Lyndon Johnson thinking when he uttered that statement? Obviously not the mission of the National Park Service!

And then there's all those do-gooders, you know the ones, those in the National Parks Conservation Association, the South Florida Wildlands Association, the Wilderness Society and the like.

They seem to be claiming that the park service itself has neglected its mission, saying that the gas and oil exploration plan will cause all sorts of hideous problems — destruction of vegetation, spread of invasive species, oxidation of fragile soils and hydrological changes.

Obviously those are scare tactics. The National Park Service would never abrogate its responsibilities!

In conclusion, though, we do have one small question.

What will happen, after all the road-creating, ground-thumping, truck-rumbling, habitat-changing activity that will be engaged in during the project, if Burnett Oil actually finds oil or gas?

Do Floridians need to be concerned that the National Park Service will divert from its new "obviously progressive and capitalistic" mission, reverting back to those antiquated notions of preserving wildness for future generations?

Now that we more thoroughly understand the park service's goals we hope that in the near future we see oil derricks and gas pipelines across that never-ending — translate "boring" — river of grass that covers so much of the southern part of this state.

Really it's only the animals that appreciate that sort of thing.

After all, there's plenty of stuffed panthers in museums around the state for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to see any time they wish.

What were we thinking?

What was the National Parks Service thinking?

Online: http://jacksonville.com/

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May 27

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune on expulsion reforms:

As of May 27 the Sarasota County School District hadn't expelled any students during the most recent school year, and the number of suspensions dropped dramatically.

The district's policies and practices have changed so significantly that there is room to praise the reforms — and criticize shortcomings in the not-so-distant past.

As Shelby Webb reported, among Florida's 67 school districts, Sarasota County's "expelled the second-highest number of students from 2010 to 2014, kicking more than 350 students out of their regular schools." That number was higher than the combined total of expulsions in 13 districts, including some of the state's largest. (Twenty-five more students were expelled in Sarasota County during 2014-15.) Furthermore, suspension rates were high.

It must be acknowledged that too many students exhibit serious behavioral problems, including those that threaten the safety of other youngsters, teachers and staff. Even non-threatening disruptions cause significant problems, distracting teachers from teaching and students from learning. Drug-related offenses are not uncommon, and the potential for bullying and conflict has been exacerbated by social media channels that enable anti-social behavior.

The school district must be held accountable, but it cannot solve problems alone; community support will be required, and educators must be willing to collaborate on solutions.

The recent changes place Sarasota County's public-school system in closer alignment with other school districts. Yet the positive results underscore the troubling fact that the Sarasota district failed to adequately analyze the collective impacts of expulsions and suspensions.

In an era of budget reductions, programs that offered alternatives to expulsion and out-of-school suspension were eliminated or cut back. Nevertheless, other districts facing financial constraints adapted.

Bottom line: The expectations for Sarasota County's A-rated district, which enjoys additional local funding approved by voters, were not met.

Fortunately, lobbying by community groups, media coverage and greater awareness in the district have led to constructive reforms. A new leader was assigned to oversee discipline and alternative education district-wide. In guest columns to be published in the Herald-Tribune opinion pages Sunday and Monday, Superintendent Lori White explains refashioned policies and procedures, and cites the addition of new programs designed to prevent disciplinary problems and provide effective alternatives to kicking kids out of school. These changes must be continually measured to assess their effectiveness and sustainability.

Another positive step is focusing School Board meetings on disciplinary actions and programs: Clearly, public discussions had been inadequate; furthermore, additional changes will likely require significant investments, possibly by the board.

For instance, a promising pilot project at Sarasota High School has brought together educators, law enforcement, social-service agencies and the court system. The Juvenile Court Intervention Team, as it's known, seeks to provide students on probation, and facing relatively minor criminal offenses, with alternatives to suspension, expulsion or even short-term detention at a facility operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Leaders of the team report success on a small scale so far and hope to expand the program substantially; they're seeking a $4 million grant to do so. If, however, the grant is not obtained, will the School Board, the next superintendent (White retires in February) and the community be willing to make the investment?

Ideally, state government — which is constitutionally responsible for funding a high-quality education for all students — would step in with supplemental funding for school districts. That prospect is unlikely, which makes us leery of increased state oversight; districts don't need more unfunded mandates.

The problems have been identified locally and preliminary responses are in place. Moving forward, the goals should include improving and expanding upon positive changes and providing the scrutiny necessary to determine if they are effective and adequate.

Online: http://www.heraldtribune.com/

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May 31

The Tampa Bay Times on Gov. Rick Scott's ideas for universities:

Universities do more than train students to get jobs, and Gov. Rick Scott's Degrees to Jobs summit last week rekindled the debate about emphasizing job training at the expense of a liberal arts education to produce informed, well-rounded citizens. But the governor's enthusiasm for readying students to enter the workforce as soon as possible produced several good ideas. Expanding scholarship money to cover summer tuition and reducing fees for online classes are practical ways to support students trying to graduate on time.

The governor's proposals come as fewer than half of undergraduates at state schools graduate within four years. The number of students paying surcharges for taking extra credits, a penalty schools impose to encourage quicker graduation and reduce campus overcrowding, doubled last year. So it makes sense to look for practical ways to smooth the path to graduation and reduce student costs.

Scott's conference of business and university leaders should have included faculty members to round out the conversation. But some proposed policies are commendable efforts to help students knock out their requirements in less time. Scott wants the Legislature to expand the Bright Futures scholarship — a merit-based program that awarded money to nearly 130,000 students in the 2014-15 school year — to include summer classes. Most undergraduates at Florida universities are required to take nine summer credit-hours to graduate, but the scholarship only funds fall and spring tuition. Top-level Bright Futures recipients use the scholarship to cover a large portion of their tuition. Easing that cost would allow more students to take more summer classes rather than needing a fifth year to finish their degree. And those who are on track to graduate on time could take their nine summer hours in one season rather than spreading the cost over multiple summers. Another proposal would cut the additional fees charged for online classes. That would add further flexibility to students' paths to graduation.

Shifting costs of online and summer courses away from students will require more investment from the state. The amount of Bright Futures aid given out in 2014-15 was the lowest amount since 2004 and went to the fewest students since 1998. Incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has promised to make higher education a top priority — a welcome change after years of state spending cuts, little maintenance money and plenty of pressure to graduate students faster.

Universities instill creativity, enable critical thinking, cultivate passions and expand students' views of their world. Those goals should not be lost in the mission to prepare students for the world. At the same time, Scott's recommendations can help students save time and money as they work toward their degrees — and legislators should allocate the money to make them happen.

Online: http://www.tampabay.com/