State Politics

Are Rick Scott’s letters to Floridians part of his reelection campaign or part of his job?

Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks Friday, Sept. 26, 2014, during the Latin Builders Association Award Luncheon, where he received the endorsement of the Hispanic organization at the event celebrated at the Hilton Miami Downtown Hotel.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks Friday, Sept. 26, 2014, during the Latin Builders Association Award Luncheon, where he received the endorsement of the Hispanic organization at the event celebrated at the Hilton Miami Downtown Hotel. EL NUEVO HERALD STAFF

The delay in getting his classroom-supply debit card was expected, but what gave chemistry teacher Shawn Beightol a case of the eye-rolls was what he called the “inappropriate political message” attached to the bank’s letter that arrived in the mail.

“Governor Rick Scott is committed to improving Florida’s education system and recognizing their teachers for their hard work and dedication,” the JPMorgan Chase bank letter said amid the instructions for activating class-supply debit cards received last week by more than 18,000 teachers like Beightol in Miami-Dade schools.

Beightol, a registered Republican, said the “politicking” was one in a long line of reasons he will vote against the GOP’s Scott and support Democrat Charlie Crist in the Nov. 4 election.

“This political blurb is an inappropriate use of what are basically public resources to promote Scott. It gives him an unfair advantage,” Beightol said, echoing other public-school teachers, many of whom, unlike him, are Democrats. “Conveniently, this arrives right before an election in the mail.”

Also last week, thousands of parents of kids with Florida prepaid college tuition accounts received letters about program savings — and Scott made sure to include a campaign-style message along with the notification from the Florida Prepaid College Board. The letter explains that parents are getting either a refund and/or a payment reduction, and outlines Scott’s top priorities as governor.

This is a crucial time for mail in the campaign season.

Absentee ballots for domestic voters will start appearing in mailboxes this week. Mail-in ballots accounted for about a quarter of the vote in the 2012 elections.

The pro-Scott letters began in earnest in 2013. In various forms, they have been mailed to thousands of Floridians who have children who did well on tests; children who recently graduated from college or attend college; people who received new business licenses; and law school graduates who passed the Florida Bar. Each time, the governor’s office denied Scott was campaigning on the state dime because cheering on citizens is part of the governor’s job.

In the case of the Florida Teachers Classroom Supply Assistance Program, the Florida Department of Education says the message about Scott was on similar correspondence last year and that it drafted the language in question, which the governor’s office reviewed.

“We wrote it to explain the genesis of the program,” said DOE spokesman Joe Follick, adding that there was no intention of making a political statement promoting Scott.

“We just want to make this program work,” Follick said. “There’s a program in place to help teachers in the classroom. And we want to help them get it done.”

A governor who leverages his office for maximum political benefit is nothing new, but the scope and scale of the Scott-touting notes from agencies and boards under the governor differs from those of his predecessors, Crist and Jeb Bush.

Some of the language used in the letters is almost identical to what Scott says today on the campaign trail.

“In the four years before taking office, Florida lost more than 832,000 jobs, and unemployment more than tripled — from 3.5 to 11.1 percent,” Scott wrote in a letter to those who passed the Florida Bar last year.

In a letter to business licensees that first appeared in 2013, Scott wrote: “growing up, my parents struggled financially. In fact, when I started school, we lived in public housing.”

To those who received the college-prepaid letters last week, Scott wrote: “As I travel throughout our state, parents and students alike tell me they cannot afford to see tuition at Florida Colleges and State Universities continue to climb. That is why earlier this year, I signed historic legislation that will keep tuition low and allow all Florida families to have access to an affordable higher education.”

Scott used similar lines about jobs, his upbringing and college affordability during and after a Friday luncheon in Miami hosted by the Latin Builders Association, which formally endorsed him.

Scott, however, did not mention the teacher supply-assistance program, which was the subject of the messages received by teachers like Beightol.

Only 12 of Florida’s 67 county school districts opted into the program, which is is designed to make it easier for teachers to equip their classrooms. The cards, worth $281 in Miami-Dade, are supposed to be used to purchase preapproved class materials. It gives teachers the ability to make buys without having to worry about keeping receipts for tax purposes.

Good intentions aside, the 2-year-old program has been beset by delays that have done little to promote Scott favorably in the eyes of many teachers.

After teachers slogged through the account-activation instructions for their Chase card — and the pro-Scott message along the way — they learned that funds had not yet been credited to the cards. Miami-Dade’s teachers will get their money Friday.

That is more than a month after the start of school Aug. 14, before which many teachers already bought classroom supplies.

The delay was the result of a misunderstanding between the state, school districts and lawmakers over the goals of implementing the program.

The lawmaker who came up with the assistance, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said he can’t believe he just learned now that his before-school deadline was too difficult to reach.

“My original intent: Get teachers $250,” the Miami lawmaker said. “Then make it more readily available.”

Fresen said he didn’t mind that Scott was getting credit for a program he came up with, but added that he didn’t know of the message about the governor in the card-activation letter until asked by a reporter.

As with any governor’s race, schools are a top issue in the campaign and on voters’ minds. Both Scott and Crist are portraying each other’s education record as a failure.

Crist was recently put in an awkward spot by Florida’s teacher union, which has sued to stop a popular voucher program that Crist expanded as governor. It is popular with minorities and African American pastors, whose support Crist needs in the deadlocked race. When asked to pick a side, Crist chose the union.

Scott was sent politically reeling after his first year in office, in 2011, when he proposed a budget that cut education funding by more than $1.3 billion. Scott’s poll numbers dropped, and he responded by then calling for more education money and teacher raises. Fresen’s classroom-supply program dovetailed with that effort.

While the supply money is appreciated, teachers like Beightol say it’s not enough. The tight budget years have left their marks on schools, where teachers struggle even to make photocopies or get enough pencils and paper.

Beightol says he would basically max out his classroom-supply money to buy a color printer for chemistry students at John A. Ferguson Senior High School in West Kendall. By year’s end, he said, he could wind up spending anywhere from $500 to $1,000 — double or more than triple what the state provides.

“I’m thankful for this extra money, but there’s something wrong with the system,” Beightol said. “We need this fixed. And we don’t need to be promoting politicians with stuff like this.”

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