Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Value of Art Education

This may be a particularly apropos time for a diary on this topic. This very week The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined forces with The Broad Foundation and announced a $60 million political style campaign for Strong American Schools called Ed in 08.

In Florida, my home state, the combination of rising property insurance premiums and property tax increases is driving the state legislature towards draconian changes in the tax system. The major target is property taxes which are the only source of revenue for local school funding requirements and the major source of revenue for local governments. The state legislature's well intended efforts to provide much needed relief to property owners are about to have some very severe unintended consequences for the quality of life here in Florida.

Caught squarely in the headlights of those unintended consequences are the arts and art education. The arts are always high on the list of the first place to cut funding in times like these. Follow me below the fold to examine why this is precisely the wrong place to start cutting.

My good friend Alonewolf , has heard more than enough about workforce training. As the CEO of an innovative high tech company, he worries about creating the next generation of leaders and creative thinkers. "Workforce Training" makes him think of the 1984 Apple Super Bowl commercial with the suited automatons marching over the cliff. At a recent "Regional Leadership Breakfast" in St. Petersburg, the topic was "Education in Florida". There were several comments and questions about "workforce training." But at this "leadership" breakfast, no one seemed to much care about leadership training.

New Horizons for Learning provides a terrific resource for the value of arts in education. Their prologue states in part:

Today it is recognized that to be truly well educated one must not only learn to appreciate the arts, but must have rich opportunities to actively participate in creative work. The arts are languages that most people speak, cutting through individual differences in culture, educational background, and ability. They can bring every subject to life and turn abstractions into concrete reality. Learning through the arts often results in greater academic achievement and higher test scores.

In Why are the Arts Important?, Dee Dickinson provides a 15 point checklist. Here are my favorites from that list:

They improve academic achievement -- enhancing test scores, attitudes, social skills, critical and creative thinking.

They exercise and develop higher order thinking skills including analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and "problem-finding."

They provide the means for every student to learn.

To my way of thinking, that should be enough to end this diary right here. But not every decision maker is influenced solely by these factors. So here is something decision makers do understand - $$$$$$.

The Economic Impact of Florida’s Arts and Cultural Industry released by the Florida Cultural Alliance in January 2004 is a study by Dr. William Stronge of Florida Atlantic University. The study is based on fiscal year 2001. Some highlights are:

Florida’s arts and cultural industry is one of the fastest growing in the state. Its annual statewide economic impact has grown from $1.7 billion in 1997 to over $2.9 billion and now supports over 28,000 full-time equivalent jobs. (That is $104 thousand per full time equivalent job!)

Attendees at the programs and events of not-for-profit cultural organizations exceeded 400 million in 2000-01. Audience participation is significant because attendance at these events generates related commerce for local businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and shops.

An estimated 7 million out-of-state tourists visited Florida’s cultural facilities or attended cultural events as a primary activity. These “cultural” tourists spent $4.5 billion, adding $9.3 billion to the state's gross regional product and creating 103,713 full-time equivalent jobs with a payroll of $2.6 billion.

The Florida Department of State has also published a brochure, Return on Investment: Florida's Cultural, Historical and Library Programs which highlights not only the economic impact of the arts but also the impact of our state's historic preservation and libraries.

Any fair reading of these studies leads to but one conclusion. Funding for the arts and art education is the last place that should be cut. Please join with me in letting our legislative and business leaders know that if they want to be leaders in the future and they want Strong American Schools , they need to lead with the arts.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Soliciting Your Ideas and Support

It was a quiet week this past Friday at the Friday Morning Group, my favorite event of the week. That does not at all mean it was not interesting.

The main topic of discussion was how to increase attendance at the Friday Morning Group. Since we tried to re-kick start the Group just before the end of last year, we have had mixed results. We had very good attendance after the holiday break. We have had good attendance when we have had special guests, such as County Commissioner Ken Welch or Roisin McDonough, Director of the Northern Ireland Arts Council. But attendance at the FMG when there is no such guest on the agenda is spotty at best.

Various thoughts about group dynamics and life cycles were discussed. There was some discussion of what the focus of the group ought to be. We have lately narrowed the focus somewhat by focusing a lot of attention on the FMG Concept Paper with the Pinellas Prize and the Creativity Center. While those are important topics, it was suggested that they should not be the only focus of the FMG.

There was also a discussion about the every week nature of the meeting. Some thought was given to the idea that an every week meeting loses some of its feeling of speciality. The idea was floated that an effort should be made to make at least one meeting a month more of a special event, perhaps with a guest speaker or some other event type meeting.

Please let us know your thoughts on these or any other ideas you might have on increasing interest and attendance at the FMG. I can be reached by email at, or by phone 727-823-3074.

There was some discussion of the efforts to move the FMG Concept Paper proposals towards reality. I spoke before the County Commission twice last week on the subject of supporting artists in the community and the Concept Paper proposals specifically. I also attended a planning meeting of the Pinellas County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). It has been suggested to us by at least two County Commissioners that the CVB's funding is not subject to curtailment under the property tax proposals currently being debated in Tallahassee. Also, the CVB is geting a new director, D.T. Minich. While the CVB Director in Lee County, Mr. Minich used the community based artists there to market his community and as a way to break through the "clutter" of other beach communities in Florida. This seems like a promising line to pursue.

Speaking of things getting curtailed in the current tax cutting environment, I attended a very interesting City Council workshop in St. Petersburg last week. Ann Wykel presented a very interesting study on how to improve the Public Arts program in St. Petersburg. While the Council Members who attended were impressed with the plan, they were hesitant to even have it formally presented to them at a televised meeting. The City is facing some very severe revenue shortages under any of the property tax reduction plans currently being debated by the legislature. As you might suspect, programs supporting arts, cultural and charitable activities of the City are prime targets for cuts. Please let your local elected officials know how you feel about these possibilities. It wouldn't hurt to let your state legislators know either.

And please try to attend a meeting of the Friday Morning Group in the near future. Bring a friend and let other interested folks know about us. We can use your help.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Charlie Crist: a Wolf in Progressive Clothing

Over at RockridgeNation right now, there is a posting up about Florida's new and so far hugely popular Governor, Charlie Crist, entitled A John Lennon Conservative?

As a resident of Charlie Crist's hometown, I can bring an up close and personal perspective. I have known Charlie Crist for over 20 years. One need make no mistake about Charlie - he is a consummate politician. I think he is doing these "progressive" things because he does believe in them. But I'm not so sure he believes in them in and of themselves, but as in where the political advantage lies.

Florida is one of those states that really makes people shake their heads, especially progressives. Florida is about 4 states in one. There is the very progressive Southeast Florida (tempered by the reactionary ant-Castro Cubans in Miami), We have the very conservative Southwest Florida. We have the moderate I-4 corridor through the middle of the state. And we have conservative North Florida (tempered by the two big university cities, Gainesville and Tallahassee.)

Boiling all this down, Florida actually comes out as much more moderate than folks on either end of the political spectrum want to admit. Charlie Crist knows this very well. His biggest political defeat, and his springboard onto the state political stage, came when he took on the moderate and hugely popular US Senator Bob Graham.

Charlie Crist is hugely popular right now because he is trying to be all things to all people. The RockridgeNation posting did not mention Charlies' number one priority - his "anti-murder" bill. He demanded and received it as the first bill he signed from the regular legislative session. This bill requires judges to keep probation violators in jail until the judge certifies the person is not a danger to society. The cost of building the jail cells needed for this could well bankrupt the state. My guess is the Florida Legislature is not going to provide all the necessary funding for this, thus creating an onerous burden for the County jails where most of these folks are going to be housed.

Charlie Crist also knows that for every progressive action he takes, he must do something to satisfy his political base. Thus his support of the failed school accountability test program and tax cuts. Crist is playing both ends against the middle. Whether he can continue to pull it off is an open question.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lead, Follow or...

The conversation continued last Friday Morning regarding efforts to implement the proposals in the Friday Morning Group's Concept Paper. Herb Snitzer and I reported on our meeting with Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel. We had a very good meeting with Commissioner Seel (we tried very hard not to talk about money).

We had previously sent the Concept Paper to Karen for her to review prior to our meeting. We asked her to just think about the concepts and leave the money aside for the moment. Ultimately we did talk about money. It is unavoidable in the current property tax "reform" environment in the state legislature. We did ask her to think about the funding for the proposals not as "new" money projects but as a rather modest reallocation of existing Cultural Affairs dollars.

We did succeed in getting Commissioner Seel to be supportive of the concept. However, the money part was definitely going to be a problem. We were urged again to look to the Tourist Development Council (TDC) as their revenue stream (bed tax on hotel and motel stays) is not going to be impacted by whatever property tax "reform" ultimately occurs. The TDC, through the Convention and Visitors Bureau, controls Tourist Development Tax grants and New Product Development grants. Ken Welch has also suggested that the TDC would be a good place to look for funding as their revenue stream is protected.

The conversation turned to the idea of government funding in general. The Concept Paper and requests for County funding all stemmed from Commissioner Welch's visit with us in February. Herb Suggested that we approach some friends in the corporate community to help us identify arts supporters in that community. Then we could strategize on the best way to pitch our proposal to them for seed money funding. We could then re-approach government for public / private partnership funding.

We renewed the discussion about the proposed size of the awards for the Pinellas Prize. Again we talked about the South Florida Cultural Councils banding together to give 10 $15,000 awards to artists every year. It was noted that Tampa gives a $15,000 stipend to their Poet Laureate and a $25,000 stipend to their Photo Laureate every year.

Herb said it was time to stop looking to others for "models" of what we ought to be doing. If we are going to think of ourselves as a leading arts community, we need to start acting like leaders. It is time for us to quit following what other communities might be doing. As a leading arts community we should be raising the bar, not seeking only to emulate someone else.

If you wish to see these proposals from our Concept Paper get implemented, we are going to need your help. We are going to need you to help us secure private funding. We are going to need your help in advocating these proposals before governmental bodies. And we are going to need your help in promoting these proposals with your friends, neighbors, relatives and anyone else who will listen.

It is time to quit following and lead.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Conversation Has Begun

Last week at the Friday Morning Group a rather lively discussion took place. Judith Powers had written up her comments on our Concept Paper. These comments were distributed to all seven County Commissioners and to Liz Warren, Judith's direct supervisor and to Paul Cozzee, the Assistant County Administrator under which the Cultural Affairs Department now falls (Parks, Leisure and Culture).

Herb Snitzer gave us a brief review of Judith's comments. They were pretty much what was expected after Judith's visit to our Group on March 9th. If you wish to read Judith's comments, you can find them here. The attendees at the meeting pretty much agreed that despite Judith's comments, we would continue to pursue the concepts of the Pinellas Prize and the Creativity Center contained in the Concept Paper. Also, we agreed that what we would do is advocate for our concepts and not get into any kind of dispute with anyone who has expressed different views on the concepts.

Along those lines, apparently word of the concept paper has spread throughout the artists community. Mike Conway reported on some conversations where some artists were pretty much stunned at the suggested size of the Pinellas Prize. Apparently there is a little bit of grumbling about the size of the prize, with some folks suggesting that perhaps the money could be spread out among more artists. Personally, that is part of the attitudinal change that we have previously talked about. Given the scale of the Cultural Departments budget ($2.1 million), the size of the prize ($50,000) is really not that much money. Heck, in this day and age, $50,000 is not a lot of money period.

Speaking of money, Michele Tuegel reported on an artists workshop that was held to go over requirements for the $1,000 grants the County is offering. On fairly short notice, about 40 artists showed up for the workshop. One of the points of interest to Judith was that after the workshop was over, many of the artists stayed and chatted amongst themselves. It seemed to her that this indicated that a gathering place for artists, where they could feel comfortable to meet and discuss their art, their lives and their daily travails might be a very good thing indeed.

There was also some discussion about the Cultural Affairs departments new location off of Ulmerton Road where there is at least meeting space available. This location is co-located with St. Pete College's mid county location. Michele reported to us about the business development courses that SPC is offering there. We have had many discussions over the years about the need for artists to recognize that they are, in fact, small business people. As such, artists could use help in the area of business development. It was suggested that perhaps SPC could be persuaded to deliver some of these business development sessions geared towards artists.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Property Tax Puzzle

Cross Posted from Florida Kossacks

Property tax reform is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, issue facing the state legislature this year. There has been much hand wringing all around. Many hare brained schemes have been floated. Civic Concern has just published a thoughtful, reasoned history of the property tax problems in Florida and proposed some solutions. Some commenters on the St. Peterburg Times Buzz Blog piece on this report claim that
The people want major reduction in property taxes
Others argue

I don't think "the people" want a bunch of half-cocked, sound bite ideas. ...
Recent polls show they're pretty skeptical of all the various proposals.
Most of "the people", i.e. the voters in this state are already benefiting from the "Save Our Homes" tax cap. Homesteaders in the City of St. Petersburg saw their City taxes stay essentially flat this year in dollar terms. These are not "the people" clamoring the most for property tax reductions. The "Save Our Homes" amendment has worked exactly as it was intended. Homesteaders are not being forced out of their homes by rising property taxes.

There have been some unintended consequences, some foreseen, others unforeseen. The foreseen consequences are that other property tax payers would pay a larger share of the tax burden if homestead property taxes were "capped". That is certainly happening. Business property owners, and by extension, renters have been seeing their uncapped property valuations and their taxes going through the roof with the recent boom in real estate prices. Chief among the unforeseen consequences are homesteaders being "trapped" in their current homes because they couldn't afford the taxes on a new property if they moved and had to step up to current market valuations.

One of the most curious scenes in this whole property tax situation is how local governments are made out as the whipping boys in this "debate". I say curious because just last fall Leadership Florida did a comprehensive survey of Florida residents. Among the key findings in this survey was the relative approval ratings of the various levels of government. Fully 61% of the respondents see the state government as doing only a fair or poor job. County governments were rated fair or poor by 55% of respondents. Only 38% of city dwellers rated their city governments as fair or poor. The state government, which people like the least, is pointing the tax reform gun right at the heads of local governments, which people like the most. I'm not sure how well that is going to work out for them.

Besides, the increasing revenue requirements of local governments are not entirely of their own making. One of the biggest drivers of increasing expenditures by local governments is growth. And that is not just on a linear basis, because growth does not pay for itself. The new taxes generated are not sufficient to pay for the increased capital needs (roads, schools, sewer) or service needs (police, fire, garbage collection) caused by the growth. Neither have we collected sufficient impact fees to pay for this growth. This, in effect, has shifted the tax burden for growth onto existing tax payers and not the new ones.That is the major reason I am not at all bothered by the apparent inequities in taxes paid for newly built homes relative to existing homes covered by the "Save our Homes" amendment. To the extent that local governments could have ameliorated this situation by charging higher impact fees, it is their fault. To the extent that the state did not do a better job of regulating growth and anticipating the increased costs, it is their fault.

But the question really is not about the blame game. The question is what to do to solve the very real property tax problems that do exist. First, here is what not to do. Arbitrary roll backs of local government revenues are not the answer. Most local elected officials are much more careful with their taxpayers dollars than the folks in Tallahassee ever were. Do you really want them deciding how much your local government can spend on your police and fire departments?

We can do something to stop the bleeding for non homestead property owners. We can change the way properties are valued. Currently, non homestead properties are valued on the basis of their "highest and best use". That is to say that the corner ice cream shop will be taxed as if it were a luxury condo building site if that is what the appraisers deem the "highest and best use" for the property. Changing the valuation method to one based on the value of the current use of a developed property would keep businesses and renters from being pilloried by higher taxes due to speculation in the real estate market.

We can fix one of the unintended consequences of the "Save Our Homes" amendment. We can make the tax benefit accrued by a homestead property owner portable. If the difference between the market value and the capped value of a property is X, we could let that homestead property owner take that X amount of benefit to a new homestead with them. Some say that this might not withstand constitutional scrutiny. I believe that problem could be overcome by carefully crafting the law and developing an appropriate legislative history. All citizens would in fact be treated the same for tax purposes because they could all accrue tax benefits on an equal basis.

These two measures would solve the most egregious issues involving property taxes that we currently face. Turning back the clock and pretending that local governments could maintain the same level of services with less money is nonsensical. Having Tallahassee decide what those levels ought to be really makes no sense. Providing solutions that will work into the future is what we should be striving for.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Not This Week

Usually, I will write up a little something to update you all on what went on at the Friday Morning Group last week. I'm not going to do that this week. If you weren't there and you really want to know, ask somebody who was.

Instead, I am just going to say that I hope you all got out and participated in some of things going on around here that were not cars racing or planes flying like:

  • Project Home in Williams Park
  • Pedro's show at the State Theatre on Sunday night.
  • Heb Snitzer leading a discussion on the Birmingham Bombing at the Studio@620

With any luck at all, I'll have a little more to say next week.