Saturday, May 03, 2008

State Legislator takes Herald to task

Yesterday, Herald Watch was copied on an email from State Representative Eddy Gonzalez to the Editors of the Miami Herald. In it Gonzalez takes issue with an article penned by Mary Ellen Klas.

Here's the Gonzalez email in its entirety:

Dear Editor:

Allow me to clarify some erroneous information published in your article titled "FOR-PROFIT TUTORS COULD GET BREAK" on May 2, 2008.

The Miami Herald and particularly Mary Ellen Klas seemed to emphasize a nonexistent political motivation behind my sponsoring the House version of Senate Bill 1414, which overwhelmingly passed the House 114-3 and the Senate 32-5. Absent from her article was any mention of the legislation's, background, purpose, or intent, which were made clear by the press release my office submitted yesterday upon the bill's passage.

I personally sponsored the House bill and drafted the amendment to its Senate counterpart. Senate Bill 1414 in no way gives an unfair break to Student Educational Service (SES) providers--providers that offer tutoring services. The bill merely requires Miami-Dade County Public Schools to charge such companies for the time they actually use the classrooms. I made this clear to Mary Ellen Klas in a conversation with her, but this was not reflected in her article. Instead, what I found was a bunch of innuendo and accusations of political machinations that have nothing to do with this piece of good, bipartisan legislation.

I take my public service seriously, and to imply that a political feud, especially one that took place well before I ever even entered the Legislature, motivated me to file this or any legislation is absurd. This was a bill to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires districts to treat providers equally. Once again, the Miami-Dade County School District has chosen politics over facts, which is not surprising from a district that employs 700 administrative personnel earning more than $100,000 in annual salaries and has paid large sums of money for ads in The Miami Herald every year.

Regardless, I filed that piece of legislation to address the unfair treatment of SES companies by the Miami-Dade County Public School District. Here are the facts: The district charges SES providers $156 per three hours (even if 1 hour is used they are forced to pay for 3) for one classroom, while others receive waivers and pay nothing. This is unfair. I never mentioned non-profits so that the School Board would not have to charge them the hourly rate but could actually charge them less or nothing at all. SES Providers offer tutoring to low-income children, and the district should not gouge them when they only use such facilities for an hour at a time. Broward County, for example, charges their providers a flat fee of $100 per year per classroom. My amendment simply requires a level playing field for providers using the facilities, which carries no additional cost to the district or its taxpayers, as providers only utilize school facilities while school staff is in the building. The district does not bring additional staff for tutoring time.

If the Superintendent feels that the hourly rate is not enough to cover cost, the School Board has the authority to increase its hourly rates. But to have different fees and minimum usage requirements for different providers is unfair, and I am proud that the Legislature made the right decision in addressing this issue in a bipartisan manner.

Rep. Eddy Gonzalez
Here's the Herald article Gonzalez is referring to:
For-profit tutors could get break
Miami-Dade schools will be forced to give tutoring companies a better rate to rent classroom space under legislation going to the governor.


TALLAHASSEE -- Companies that tutor kids in low-performing Miami-Dade schools will get a special break under an amendment tucked into a bill to grade the effectiveness of federally financed tutoring.

The Senate voted 32-5 Thursday for the bill that requires the Miami-Dade school district to lower the fee they charge tutoring companies that use school space for after-school tutoring services under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The district now charges a three-hour minimum fee to anyone who wants to rent school space and uses the money to cover the cost of paying for the electricity, maintenance and custodial services. But tutoring companies say they only need the space for an hour a day.

Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, a Hialeah Republican, put a last-minute amendment onto a bill by Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla. The Senate agreed, despite strong opposition from the school district and five other Miami-Dade legislators, and sent it to the governor.

''This only impacts Miami-Dade County,'' said Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican. ``The school district now in essence is forced to rent that space to these providers.''

The fight is overshadowed by politics and the still-simmering fight between supporters of former Dade school board member Frank Bolaños and Sen. Alex Villalobos, the Miami Republican whom Bolaños attempted to unseat in 2006.

One of the most active tutoring companies in the district, Florida Education Leadership Council, is owned by Manny Riera, a supporter of Gonzalez and Diaz de la Portilla. His business partner in the tutoring company, Alex Rizo, signed up to be the write-in candidate against Villalobos, closing the Republican primary to Democratic voters and making it more difficult for Villalobos to defeat Bolaños.

Villalobos, along with Sens. Rudy Garcia, a Miami Republican, Gwen Margolis, a Miami Beach Democrat, Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat and Frederica Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat, voted against the bill. Opponents blasted the measure as a legislative attempt to micro-manage school district policy.

Rich criticized the sponsors for giving the break to the for-profit tutoring companies but not nonprofit groups that also rent space for other activities, such as Boys and Girls Clubs. ''Why would we be giving a benefit to this particular group of providers that is not available to other entities that rent from the school?'' she asked.

Diaz de la Portilla responded that ``these providers are unique in the sense they are the ones that are tutoring our children.''

School district lobbyist Ron Book said the rate was designed to cover the district's costs.

''We turn on the lights and hire the staff whether they rent it for one hour or three hours,'' he said. ``I don't know how you have a for-profit get a better rate than everybody else. The school district is not in business to lose money. ''

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