* Exclusive interview *
ECB Publishing, Inc.
As part of a sweep through North Florida to rally rural voters, on Monday, Nov. 5, at roughly 6 p.m., gubernatorial candidate, Mayor Andrew Gillum, stepped off his campaign bus in downtown Monticello at The Monticello Opera House. Guest speakers for the event included School Board Members Shirley Washington and Gladys Roann-Watson, City Commissioner Julie Conley, former U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, Sr., and Commissioner of Agriculture candidate, Nikki Fried. A meal was served to rally attendees.
Mayor Gillum stressed the importance of small counties like Jefferson. “When you're governor of the State of Florida, you've got to be the governor for all the people of the State of Florida; not just some, but all,” said Gillum.
After his visit to Monticello and, prior to that, Madison, the gubernatorial candidate gave ECB Publishing, Inc.'s Savannah Reams an exclusive interview, detailing some of his plans to stimulate change in rural counties such as ours.
Reams: Jefferson County and similar areas are notoriously referenced as poor, dying communities. However, we are proud of our hometowns and want to see them grow and succeed. What policies would you propose to help attract industry and, consequently, jobs to small rural counties such as Jefferson?
Gillum: This is an area that has been too often neglected in statewide politics and in statewide policies. And I think the fact that we're not the most populated area of the state has caused some to ignore and take us for granted. This ends with the Gillum administration; I live in this area—I'm a part of what has been known as the forgotten coast, and what we want to do is kick this establishment off by establishing a rural counties initiative to address the fact that, of the 67 counties, 30 counties today are worse off than they were in 2007. We want to look at some of the health disparities, some of the economic disparities, job creation and sustainability efforts, because Florida cannot be strong if we're leaving half of our counties behind; that just won't work. I think it's high time we had a governor, from a part of the state where we know what it means to be overlooked, and have someone look at the ways to provide energy and a burst of renewal and renaissance to the rural counties across the State of Florida.
Reams: What policies would you propose to assist citizens living in poor, rural communities such as ours, in receiving quality healthcare?
Gillum: The first thing that we are planning on doing is expanding Medicaid. There are around 800,000 people that could get access to healthcare under Medicaid expansion. At the same time we will pull down six billion dollars from the federal government that, right now, is going to other states due to our failure to expand. Rural areas, in particular, who don't have easy access to good health care options need access to healthcare so they can, one, be served, and two, it allows the industry to expand through innovative healthcare technology to reach more people and reach more rural communities. But, they're not going to make that choice if they can't be reimbursed; if there isn't a partner at the table to ensure that this is an economically viable option for them to expand into rural areas. In addition to that, we've got to ensure that the legislature is looking at what our rural health disparities are … we're going to work together with the legislature and the state of Florida to make sure this is a real priority.
Reams: I am a former teacher and, over the years we have struggled to provide for our students all the resources and tools they need to succeed due to budget constraints. We were limited to one ESE teacher for our entire school. She does a great job, but the job is bigger than one person. Schools in low poverty areas are a different breed. High stakes testing does our students a disservice because, to be honest, our students are more worried about where their next meal will come from, or where they are sleeping for the night, not the homework in their book bag. As teachers, we want to help these intelligent students bridge the gap to success, but frankly we need more help. Do you have a plan to assist small public schools such as ours in North Florida?
Gillum: I'm a big believer in the public education system and I am a big benefactor of the public education system here in the state of Florida. I think we need to pay teachers much more competitive salaries so they can choose to operate and locate in counties like Madison County. We want to make sure we reduce this punitive approach to penalizing teachers in the classrooms based off of how well their students perform on a test that isn't telling us what a kid knows but how well they take a test. We've got to reverse those incentives and create more of a support-based model, so that we're incentivizing some of our most skilled teaching professionals to go into some of our more challenging teaching environments, loosen up these high stakes testing regimes and, instead, re infuse in our education system skills training and also college bound tracks that allow our kids to enjoy the educational learning experience. At this stage, we're unfortunately addressing a punitive measure, which is uninspiring to our teachers and extremely uninspiring and under motivating to our students.
Reams: Many in our area believe public schools often reflect the racial and class inequalities of the communities they serve. Do you have plans to ensure that Florida addresses the two-tiered system currently available to children (one preferred educational experience for privileged children, through private, for-profit alternatives, and other educational experiences, through the public system, for disadvantaged children)?
Gillum: Well, I think we've got to fully-fund the public education system. The public education system still educates 90 percent of our kids. The fact we're now standing up for a for-profit private sector testing industry, with little accountability around it, while we over penalize the public system and hold them to a different standard is unfair and it is untenable to create that kind of disparity in education. You're going to see me be a firm champion for the public system and, in so doing, create greater flexibility within the public model so that they are adjustable to the students they are teaching. The one-size-fits-all model, in my opinion, does not work and it has not worked in this state and, when we win, we're going to address that.