|Date:||April 17, 2019|
|Source:||Panama City News Herald|
TALLAHASSEE — Standing on the steps of the state capitol building, Holly Allaine found herself on the brink of losing everything to Hurricane Michael as she waved her “Save the Schools” signs at passing traffic.
She lost her home to storm. She’s had to move twice in the past six months to keep a roof over her head. Now, she’s worried her job as a teacher will be the storm’s next casualty, as the school district warns they are looking at eliminating 600 positions if the state doesn’t allocate relief funding.
Whether the legislators in the building behind her knew it or not, it felt like her future was in their hands — a future that seemed on the verge of slipping through their fingers.
Six months after Hurricane Michael, over 100 people from Bay, Gulf and Franklin Counties loaded up on to buses and organized carpools before the break of dawn to rally the troops in Tallahassee on Wednesday. Tired of feeling forgotten — feeling like the politicians across the state don’t care that they all lost their homes or about the massive clean-up bills that threaten to bankrupt their cities or about the tremendous loss Michael caused — they decided to make themselves visible, and therefore that much harder to forget.
“We can’t be apathetic now,” Allaine said. “We have to be out there fighting for what is right. Disaster funding for our city, for our schools, for our teachers and for our families.”
The schools were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Frustrations have been growing locally over disaster relief with every supplemental funding bill that didn’t pass at the national level, but last week when Superintendent Bill Husfelt said the state government didn’t have the money the schools needed to survive allocated and unless something changed soon teacher layoffs were coming, it felt to many like a betrayal.
Within minutes of Husfelt’s plea, Michael’s Angels, a local advocacy group, started organizing the “Rally in Tally.” One week later, Michael’s Angels was joined by over 100 people on the steps of the historic capitol building, making a space for themselves between the dozens of other groups with own agendas to put forward at the complex.
“Before I did this, and this is really truly honest, I had no idea that I actually had a voice when it came to legislation and laws and that it mattered. That it wasn’t just somebody else’s job and somebody else’s agenda and I was just along for the ride,” said Michael Angels leadership team member Tracy Johnstone. “This is the first time in 58 years I realized that it matters that we are here. It does make that spike.”
Part of the confusion in Tallahassee, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Bay County native, is that legislators don’t see where the outrage is, which makes them question how bad it is.
“I explained to them you will find that nobody is complaining. People are putting themselves together, showing up to work, doing their job. You’ll find that it is a different kind of suffering,” he said. “When people come through they are blown away that people are living in those types of conditions, that they are enduring with those types of circumstances. They scratch their heads and say, “Why is there not this outcry. Why is there not this demand to fill it?”
But having a crowd come to the capitol, he said, helps make the legislators understand.
“The difference (between Hurricane Michal and other powerful storms) is you have massive population centers that were hit and those big population centers are able to advocate in ways to move the needle,” he said. “This is what you are doing today. You are moving the needle. This is the time. This is the place. And this is the environment to make the argument that we need help and we have to have our problems addressed.”
“Y’all being here today puts a stake in the ground for what our community is going through. It makes a difference when we tell our story,” said Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City. “Those stories make a real difference in the way that we make decisions in Tallahassee and you being here today is tremendous.”
People who went talked about losing their homes. They talked about going for a bike ride and seeing every other house with a tarp still patched over the roof, and people living out of campers in their front yard. They talked about having friends move away when there was nothing left for them after the hurricane. They talked about not wanting to be the “Forgotten Coast” — once a tourism slogan, now a loaded barb — anymore.
And they talked about teachers and students. The biggest group to show up by far was Bay High School students, outraged and saddened at the idea of losing their teachers.
“I don’t want to see any of our teachers leave,” student Taylor Jackson said.
The parents always talked about the need to do something for their children.
“My kids are going to remember this (storm),” said Cynthia Fuller, a leadership member of Michael’s Angels. “When they ask me what I did, I want to be able to say I tried. I tried everything.”
At the end of the day — after hearing from Patronis, Trumbull, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Sen. Bill Montford — people were hopeful they had moved the needle. In her conversations with politically connected people, Mitzi Prater, also a leadership member of Michael’s Angels, said she heard that the money for the schools — “the money we need” — is coming. Thanks to Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano, she said “we are going to have what we need ... we will have what we need.”
On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations panel did move forward a pair of bills to help with recovery. One provides assistance for housing, debris removal, infrastructure repairs and other needs and the other would create a $300 million loan program out of the “rainy day” reserve fund, that would likely help fund the schools. The bills still need to be passed by lawmakers.
The steps of the capitol, Prater said, were only stop one for Michael’s Angels. After the state, it’s on to Washington D.C next month, because there is more work to be done there, she said.
“I’m still trying to help my people,” Prater said.