By Michelle Braun, president and CEO, United Way of Northeast Florida
One of my favorite quotes is from one of my favorite champions of change: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
When I think about what our community – our country, our world – is going through, it’s difficult to not be discouraged. A global pandemic. Racial injustice. A viscerally divisive election. Not to mention the everyday challenges too many face in our community all year, such as poverty and hunger and homelessness.
But what gives me hope are all the individuals able to see past the turmoil and pain to find their voice to build hope and inspire change. We’re seeing it already: More than $5 million raised for Florida’s First Coast Relief Fund that supported 113 local nonprofits. Local governments, corporations and organizations taking a stand against racism. A nationwide movement to increase voter registration and turnout.
These seeds of change are beginning to grow, but they all need one thing in common to survive: you. We need to be civically engaged, we need to get informed on important issues, and we need to act.
Not everyone can be on the frontlines, but no one should be on the sidelines.
One important step to engaging is becoming informed about important topics on this year’s general election ballot. Of course, the presidential, House and Senate races are getting much attention, but there are important local referenda to also consider.
On the Duval County ballot next month is a very important referendum that could affect the prosperity of Northeast Florida for generations. The School District of Duval County Florida Surtax Referendum, more commonly known as the “Half Penny for Public Schools” campaign, is an important proposal that will vastly improve our education system and address racial disparities by investing in much-needed infrastructure improvements.
Duval County school buildings are, on average, 44 years old, which makes them the oldest buildings in the state. Our schools lack high-technology infrastructure needed to provide a modern education. Moreover, maintaining and repairing old buildings uses funds that could otherwise more directly support student achievement.
At United Way of Northeast Florida, our Full Service Schools team experiences firsthand every day the deteriorating structures and witness how they affect the learning environments of our young people. Quality school buildings contribute to student achievement by providing proper light, acoustics and air quality that directly impact learning. Investments will also provide technology that optimizes instruction and prepares students for today’s workplace.
It’s important to know, too, the emotional improvements that can occur in students alongside the structural ones. Facility repairs and upgrades will communicate to children that the community values education. It would also provide reassurance to students that they are safe and secure in their learning environment. Perhaps most importantly, improvements would offer inviting spaces that enhance student self-belief and desire to be in school. There are also clear disparities in the condition of schools in communities that are majority African American, and this plan will help resolve that inequity.
In a community were nearly 40 percent of individuals and families struggle to make ends meet, it’s imperative to also recognize the economic gains of improved school infrastructure.
Research shows a successful, high-quality public education system is the most important single economic driver in a community. It also promoted increased property values, higher incomes, better jobs and healthy communities. Plus, businesses, professionals and highly skilled workers relocate to communities based on the merits of the school system, both for their children and for future employees.
And let’s not forget: the children who sit in our classes today are the people we will rely on to lead and serve our community – our future teachers, nurses, doctors, firefighters and bankers. The quality of their education will directly affect our quality of life.
We hope you’ll join United Way of Northeast Florida in advocating for the improvement of our schools, the foundation of success in life. We encourage you to learn more about the “Half Penny for Public Schools” campaign from our friends at the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.
But most of all, we encourage you, as Dr. King so fervently urged, to not stay silent. Use your voice. Please vote for a better future for everyone. Visit unitedway.org/voteunited to take action now. Do not sit on the sidelines.