A new local organization was born out of frustration over a statewide funding crisis that threatened to gut educational programs and undermine the state’s future.
At age 23, University of Florida graduate Ray Seaman decided to rally educators early this year throughout Marion County. He had learned that most of 522 first- and second-year teachers were destined to lose jobs if the School District didn’t get stimulus funding.
He knew something had to be done – and quick.
Seaman contacted educators and others in the community to form Marions United for Public Education, a grassroots organization.
One of the first calls he made was to Summerfield resident Nancy Noonan, a 68-year-old retired educator and former union chief in Pennsylvania.
Together, the two have proven that people of all ages can become a community force.
Recently, Marions United walked 3 miles with Lawton “Bud” Chiles III along State Road 200 from Jasmine Square plaza to the Ocala office of Larry Cretul, the state speaker of the House.
On that fast-paced walk, Chiles said grassroots movements like Marions United are making a difference in protecting education.
“These groups are vital,” he said.
Seaman works for Progress Florida, which launched the Stop the Cuts campaign this year aimed at protecting Florida Forever, Medicaid and education.
Seaman’s mother, School District employee Nancy Seaman, shared with him the heartache that one veteran teacher was experiencing.
It was just after the announcement that 522 teachers might lose jobs. Though she was a teacher who would not have been let go, she was frustrated.
“She said: ‘I think I’m going to give it up,’ ” said Seaman, adding that it made him realize that something had to be done.
That’s when he talked to Progress Florida and that agency allowed Seaman to use some of his time to start Marions United.
“I think we can make a difference,” Seaman said.
The group’s first mission was a “Save Our Schools” petition drive, a localized education version of Stop the Cuts that Progress Florida started.
“We weren’t the best organized group at first,” Seaman said, “but we met every week” to find a focus.
Seaman said he wanted the public to know about how the cuts would have a “disastrous effect on the school system and our future overall.”
Seaman said there were two main reasons the group has succeeded: Progress Florida and the grassroots support of so many people.
Now that jobs were saved, they want to continue moving forward, knowing that Florida could be facing a similar fate in the 2011-12 school year.
That’s when stimulus dollars run out.
“We have good public schools overall, but we can do better,” he said. “That’s why we decided to have a permanent grassroots group.”
Noonan, 68, was a retired veteran educator wanting a challenge to keep her going during her twilight years. She had risen from being a teacher to serving as union chief for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
Noonan said she wanted “to find some way that my skills, my passion could be utilized.”
She was named president of Marions United.
Noonan had applied for a job with the Lake County Education Association and was a finalist when she decided she wanted more than a full-time job.
Instead of money, she wanted to be part of a movement.
“I saw the opportunity to make a difference, bringing parents, grandparents and teachers together for a common cause,” she said. “I thought the opportunity to help grow an organization was my mission in life. I didn’t want to be involved in this unless it was going to be a credible group that is based on facts.”
Seaman and Noonan said they hope when they speak, they are taken seriously.
They characterize Marions United as a non-partisan, nonprofit citizen advocacy group.
“Fund Our Future” is the group’s new campaign, which kicks off after the first of the year.
The goal of the campaign is to “make sure that the legislature restores funding back to the 2007 levels,” according to Noonan.
The group met with legislators on Marion County Day in March.
School Board member Judi Zanetti said they are actively engaged and make sure they have their facts straight before addressing the School Board.
Officials have pointed to the fact that Marions United investigated the proposed critical needs tax – a quarter mill increase – and supported the millage increase that would have paid for after-school programs.
The cost ended up coming from reserve funding.
The group even blasted School Board members Ron Crawford and Jackie Porter for voting down the tax that would have generated about $6 million.
The vote had to pass by a 4-1 super majority.
“Public education is everyone’s responsibility and I’m excited to see so many people stepping up and taking an active role,” Zanetti said.