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Angie Cook | Jackson County Floridian

MARIANNA — Inside a packed meeting room Monday afternoon, the Florida Legislature’s Jackson County delegation opened the microphone to more than a dozen speakers and spent roughly 80 minutes hearing several pleas for funding, a few concerns about legislation, and numerous stances on continuing efforts to incorporate Compass Lake in the Hills.

Rep. Brad Drake, R-District 5, and Sen. George Gainer, R-District 2, represent Jackson County in the Florida Legislature and were both in attendance at Monday’s meeting.

Dr. Sarah Clemmons spoke first, advocating for Chipola College and the public college’s bachelor’s degrees program. The interim president said the school was the only access to a public four-year within a 60-mile radius. That, along with schedule and cost, “allows Chipola to make a very important contribution” to the rural communities it serves, Clemmons said.

Marianna City Manager Jim Dean made a brief statement regarding funding needed to continue a multi-faceted $4.5 million work project that would replace the municipality’s aging city hall and renovate spaces to accommodate existing emergency services operations on that same downtown block. Dean said the city had secured roughly 35 percent of the budget and was asking the state to assist with the other 65 percent.

Representatives of the Northwest Florida Water Management District, Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida and Doorways of NWFL took time to advocate for their respective organizations. Susan Gage, representing the Early Learning Coalition added that the organization delivers school-readiness services to 458 area children, while 167 are wait-listed due to the lack of additional funding.

Education issues continued in the spotlight as Jackson County School Board member Stacey Goodson stood to discuss what he called the “tremendous need” associated with a planned K-8 school in Marianna. Citing the age of campuses of the schools the new Jackson K-8 would replace (Marianna Middle School and Golson and Riverside elementary schools), a projected annual savings of $840,000 and other possible benefits, Goodson reminded Drake and Gainer that the Jackson County School District is in its third year of trying to secure state Special Facilities funding for the school, which is currently ranked second on a short list of projects being considered. He said the cost of the school is estimated at $57 million and a first-round state allocation of $19 million was needed for Jackson County to start the work project.

“I think the community has come together, I think everybody’s excited and I think it’s going to be a win-win,” Goodson said.

George Gainer delivered some encouraging words to school officials about the prospects of Jackson County securing funding for the new school.

“We’re down to $35 million that we need,” Gainer said. “We currently have enough to get it started and I’ve been assured by people a lot more powerful than me that we’re going to get the school done this year.”

“I think this K-8 is going to happen and if it don’t I’ll sure have a lot of egg on my face.”

School Superintendent Larry Moore added that he appreciated the work done so far on the K-8 project and yielded the floor to a grandmother who described a lack of educational services for deaf students in Jackson County, an issue Drake said the delegation would discuss with school officials in the future.

Also from the school district, Student Services Director Shirl Williams took time to address the state school assessment program and express the district’s support of proposed changes presented by a panel of school superintendents to the Senate appropriations subcommittee on Pre-K through 12 education chaired by Sen. David Simmons, R-District 9. Those changes recommend increasing instruction time by reducing the number of required end-of-course exams and authorizing the use of pencil and paper, instead of computers, when students take standardized tests.

Williams sited statewide software glitches and isolated internet outages as roadblocks to the successful administration of computer-based tests. As a local example, she described a recent discovery by Jackson County technology staff of “bulging batteries” on recently acquired computer tablets that presented a “potential hazard for students” and required “over 500” of the devices be returned to the manufacturer. Those devices were scheduled to be used for assessments but are now unavailable, leaving schools “to scramble to make other arrangements for testing,” Williams said. She left the legislators with copies of lengthy test administration manuals and copies of the eight-page assessment calendar, a document Williams pointed out used to be “a one-pager.”

Lisa Grice, executive director of Chipola Healthy Start Coalition, was next to address the two-member delegation. While the Chipola Coalition is a non-profit corporation, Grice said the community-based organization does rely on some government funding to further the mission of reducing infant mortality rates and improving the health of mothers in the largely rural multi-county area it serves. She asked the legislators to protect the group’s funding, which is now facing “significant threat” in a Department of Health budget-reduction proposal.

LaVon J. Pope presented a letter containing her concerns, “as a citizen, as a mother and a grandmother,” about Senate Bill 140: Openly Carrying a Handgun and some suggestions for inclusion in the bill. Pope asked Drake and Gainer to keep her concerns in mind as the legislation moved through the process. “Be my voice,” she said.

Delegates also heard an appeal for sponsors and co-sponsors of bills related to local communities’ ability to choose curricula and school textbooks; and a request to lower certain fees related to car title transfers. Regarding the latter, Drake said a related measure was already being discussed.

The remains of the day’s agenda included speakers Nevin Zimmerman, James Cowart, Ann Codrick and Tom Hicks, all there to address various aspects of ongoing efforts to incorporate Compass Lake in the Hills. Those who wanted to speak about the move to make a new city in Jackson County, either for or against the effort, were afforded time at the microphone, but Drake cautioned them that the issue was moot and not likely to be decided soon.

A feasibility study submitted to the legislature in August 2016 was reviewed by House staff and returned to proponents, with notes on deficiencies from statutory requirements. Drake said he understood some of those deficiencies had been met, while some were still outstanding.

“In order to proceed, from a legislative posture, the staff would have to seek some guidance from three separate state agencies,” Drake said.

That lengthy process requires input from the Department of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Revenue and the Office of Economic and Demographic Research, he said.

“There would not be enough time between now and the next legislative session to proceed with a formal request of a local bill to be considered by the legislature to incorporate Compass Lake in the Hills.”

The Florida Legislature’s regular 60-day session begins Tuesday, March 7.