Inside the Florida Capitol on Wednesday, members of the Senate began debating a highly controversial school safety bill that would allow teachers to carry concealed weapons in an effort to deter future school shootings.
Outside the Capitol, a few hundred Bay County residents — many of them educators and students — were focused on a different education issue, one that has not received a lot of attention outside the Florida Panhandle community. They want the state to keep teachers in the classroom, period.
Six months after Hurricane Michael slammed into northwest Florida, the area is still struggling from the devastation the storm left behind. That’s especially true of its education system.
As local residents struggle to put their lives and their communities back together, they fear their cries for help are falling on deaf ears in Tallahassee and in Washington, D.C. That’s why they organized Wednesday’s rally.
“We wouldn’t think that six months later we would be losing more, Losing teachers. Losing medical professionals. Schools closing down. Hospitals closing down,” said Natalie Turner, who made the two-hour bus ride to Tallahassee with her 12-year-old daughter, Averie.
“I’m at a loss for words and shocked we’re not getting the help we need,” Turner added. “I compare it to if we were Miami-Dade County, or even Tallahassee, we wouldn’t be here today. Because we’re a smaller community it’s like we don’t matter. But we do.”
Turner’s home sustained extensive water damage as a result of the storm. She and her family have spent the past six months living in a small trailer paid for by her insurance company. She considers herself fortunate. There have been stories of families living out of their cars, sharing small apartments with multiple family members, or choosing to leave the area altogether.
In Bay County alone, school officials say the school district has lost 3,376 students and 228 employees since the hurricane made landfall. In February, the district was forced to close three schools due to lower enrollment. The district estimates it needs about $220 million to repair damaged schools and already faces a $37.2 million shortfall. As a result, Bay County schools could be forced to layoff 600 additional employees.
While state lawmakers who represent the affected area have made disaster relief their top priority and continue to work on a relief package, it’s not been quick enough for local residents.
“Trying to get something done,” said Mark Plesner, a lifetime resident of Panama City. “We feel like we’ve been just kind of forgotten.”
“The roads are clear,” Plesner added. “But there are areas where it looks like it just happened yesterday.”
State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a former state representative whose family is from Panama City, assured the crowd that help is on the way. But, he admits it won’t be easy because of the state’s diversity.
“When a budget is passed, it’s got to make sense for the entire state,” Patronis told the group. “There are so many different needs in this state with so many different people who represent their part of the state that come up here and they got to hash out a solution and it’s tough. It’s tough.”
Patronis says there’s an art to working together in the legislative process.
“Help is going to come and it’s not going to come overnight. Next year is going to be painful,” Patronis told the rally. “But year three, you’re not going to recognize northwest Florida.”
Patronis says not all of the relief will be coming from the state and federal governments. He points to $7 billion in insurance dollars that will be flowing into the area economy to repair or rebuild homes and businesses.
Despite Patronis’ encouragement, the Bay County residents who made the trip to Tallahassee, like Natalie Turner, their message to legislators remained unchanged.
“We matter. We’re here. Don’t forget about us. We need help.”