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Puerto Rico task force focuses on students at latest meeting

Posted on Friday, February 2, 2018 at 12:49 pm

By Charlie Reed

For the News-Gazette

Local officials met for a second time on Jan. 29 as part of the Regional Task Force for Puerto Rican Arrivals.

This meeting focused on education and brought together school officials from Osceola, Orange, Brevard and Polk counties to discuss the ongoing influx of thousands of Puerto Rican students.

Osceola County has absorbed 2,500 new students into schools across the district, though about 500 have withdrawn, said Schools Superintendent Debra Pace.

Still, 59 new students from Puerto Rico arrived last week in Osceola, already the fastest growing school district in Florida.

The Florida Department of Education has made funding adjustment to accommodate the sudden spike in population, but “resources are tight,” Pace said.

Along with Saturday academic enrichment classes, some students from Puerto Rico also are receiving mental health counseling to deal with the post-traumatic stress from Hurricane Maria. Pace said the district is working closely with 119 high school seniors from Puerto Rico hoping to earn their diplomas by May. Most are working toward a diploma from the state of Florida, which has tougher standards for graduation than Puerto Rico does, school officials said.

District officials are also working with Valencia College help students from Puerto Rico transition into higher education, Pace told the task force, which meets at the Osceola County Commission chambers.

Organized by Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, the task force brings together local, state and federal officials to work on the issues related to the influx of people still coming from Puerto Rico.

Many are scrambling for a place to live as emergency shelter funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency run out. FEMA on Wednesday “officially shut off” its mission in Puerto Rico and will turn over its remaining food and water supplies  to the Puerto Rican government to finish distributing.

Almost four months later after the monster storm hit, nearly one-third of the island is still without power. Many families who fled to Florida in the storm’s aftermath have yet to secure permanent housing or jobs.

It’s still unclear exactly how many Puerto Ricans have come to Florida. Gov. Rick Scott’s office put the estimate near 300,000 in December. It was based on commercial flights from Puerto Rico to Orlando, Miami and Tampa, which include businesspeople, journalists, aid workers, contractors and government employees.

But earlier this month, University of Florida economists said the state’s figures were inflated and that the number was closer to 500,000, based on school enrollment and aid requests. So far, about 22,000 Florida driver licenses and identifications have been issued to Puerto Ricans and more than 11,000 students from the island have been enrolled in Florida schools.

Members of Soto’s task force urged the public to support efforts to use increased property-tax revenues stemming from higher property values for schools – a hot topic in the Florida Legislature, which is now in session.

The Senate and Gov. Rick Scott want to use the increased revenues to help fund public schools, while the House has opposed the idea, calling it a tax increase.

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers are still hammering out how to assist Puerto Rican American citizens who have been displaced by Hurricane Maria.