Central Florida 100: UF Honors, School Testing And History In Space – Sun Sentinel

Our panel of 100 influential leaders discusses the most important issues affecting you.

Martha Are, CEO, Central Florida Commission on Homelessness

Last week: POVERTY RISE: This year’s poverty report shows a discouraging, albeit not surprising, increase in the national poverty level. The fact that Central Florida’s rate is even higher than the national level (16% compared to 11.4%) is troubling as well and contributes to our region’s challenges with homelessness. One key thing to note, though, is that the supplemental poverty measure, which takes into account government benefits, showed improvement, indicating that government programs play a critical role in keeping people out of poverty. This is an important reminder to all of us that social services are crucial supports, especially during times of crisis.

Dick Batchelor, president, Dick Batchelor Management Group

Last week: CALCULATING DESANTIS: With so many debates about masks and vaccine requirements, Gov. DeSantis has unmasked his raw, calculated and deadly political calculation of how many more lives he is willing to expose to a deadly pandemic, while suggesting that President Biden is having a “hissy fit” about the delta variant. Governor, might I suggest you weigh the consequences of your cavalier actions? Instead of dismissing emotions, give pause and thought to this severe illness, the loss of loved ones and their preventable bitter losses. That isn’t a “hissy fit,” but sincere sentiment of simply caring for those impacted by your callous, intentional policies.

Lee Constantine, commissioner, Seminole County

Last week: PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS: Private Property Rights is a buzz-phrase some developers use as a legal excuse to dismantle the local planning process. But property rights go both ways. Neighbors near new developments have the same rights to enjoy and protect themselves from diminished property value and their quality of life. Unfortunately, their rights often become secondary to new growth. There are, however, ways to strengthen the planning process, from pre-application meetings between developers and neighbors, to waiting periods giving leaders and the public time to review applications before final votes, to supermajority approval for some irreversible land-use changes. Informed and empowered citizens are the best guardians of Florida’s future.

Jane Healy, former editorial page editor and managing editor, Orlando Sentinel

Last week: BRIGHT FUTURES: Kudos to the University of Florida for its new spot on the U.S. News and World Report annual college rankings. It’s ranked 28th among the nation’s universities, including public and private, and fifth for public universities. It’s no coincidence that Florida’s steady rise has come at the same time it instituted Bright Futures, which gives free or reduced tuition to top students at any Florida college. One of the main reasons the Legislature did this in 1997 was to keep top students in-state. Also, Florida has held its in-state tuition incredibly low — now about $6,100 yearly — even if you don’t qualify for Bright Futures.

Viviana Janer, vice chairwoman, Osceola County Commission

Last week: UP WITH TOURISM: A large part of Osceola County’s economy depends on tourism, and we all know the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our economy. There’s no doubt that the Tourist Development Tax (TDT) strengthens our local economy by supporting the tourism industry – and that the drop caused by the coronavirus deeply impacted our community. So, it was great to see Osceola’s July TDT collection hit $6.6 million – the highest ever. With two months of collections left in the current budget year, it’s safe to say that we will surpass our budget projection and the total collected in 2020. Here’s looking forward to a continued rebound in the coming year.

Belinda Ortiz Kirkegard, Kissimmee economic development director

Last week: HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH: I’m always excited for Hispanic Heritage Month because it offers the opportunity to showcase one’s cultural roots and celebrate the stories of Hispanic families and entrepreneurs, who have overcome the odds to achieve the American dream. If you’re looking for some inspiration or profound examples of the power of the human spirit, this is the month, as various members of our community will share their remarkable stories.

Ken LaRoe, Founder, Climate First Bank

Last week: DESANTIS’ DEMAND: Now that the Pfizer vaccine is FDA-approved, is it any surprise that local governments want to ensure the safety of their employees by requiring vaccines? Unfortunately, Gov. DeSantis loves to make everyone’s lives more difficult. By threatening to fine cities and counties up to millions of dollars for implementing mask mandates, he proves yet again that he cares more about his political career than Floridians’ collective health and safety.

Looking ahead: VACCINATION DIVERSITY: Good news! More people are getting vaccinated every day, and Florida recently surpassed 50 percent vaccination. Moreover, recent data may suggest that the racial gaps in vaccinations are narrowing, with Hispanic and Black people getting vaccinated at higher rates. I applaud local efforts across the board to educate and improve vaccination rates within our diverse communities.

David Leavitt, former Seminole County Libertarian Party chairman, CEO of Refresh Computers

Last week: FIREFIGHTERS’ FREEDOM: 500 Orange County firefighters are refusing to turn in their vaccine cards in support of firefighters who choose not to be vaccinated. This is great news for people who understand what freedom and choice mean. In a recent Orange County meeting, a white male speaker called out Mayor Jerry Demings for segregating people based on vaccine status. In his remarks to those comments, Mayor Demings said he is the one who “knows something about segregation.” I have advice for Mayor Demings – learn from what you already know about. Segregation of all kinds is evil.

Looking ahead: PRO VS. ANTI: There are pro-mask folks and pro-vaccine folks. There are mask-choice folks and vaccine-choice folks. Read those two sentences again. It’s most definitely not pro vs. anti. Choice does not equal Anti. One would have you ruled by tyranny. The other will leave you alone, if not for tyranny. One advocates government force over your body. The other advocates individual choice over your own body. One succumbs to fear in direct spite of freedom. The other faces fear because of freedom. It’s force vs. freedom. It’s evil vs. good. It’s always been that way. Which side are you on?

A.J. Marsden, assistant professor, Beacon College

Last week: NO MORE FSA: The end may be nigh for the Florida Standards Assessment annual exams and few educators, parents, and students across the state are shedding tears about the potential demise of this antiquated practice. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he will ask lawmakers to ditch standardized testing and pivot to progress monitoring — a more individualistic approach to assessing students. Although this switch will take some time, it is exactly what Florida teachers need to do their jobs. When outcomes are based on testing scores, teachers’ hands are tied and student learning suffers. It’s about time we allowed our teachers to take control in their classrooms.

Alex Martins, chair, UCF Board of Trustees; CEO, Orlando Magic

Last week: UCF IN U.S. NEWS: UCF ranks among the nation’s leaders in innovation and social mobility In U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges 2022 rankings. UCF placed No. 15 among most innovative universities and No. 51 for social mobility, a leap of 19 spots in two years. Overall, we ranked No. 67 in the nation among public universities, and we are one of only three universities in the country to improve our overall ranking each of the past five years. Thank you to our talented faculty and staff and our dedicated alumni, donors and community partners for all you do to elevate our university.

Anna McPherson, past president, Junior League of Greater Orlando

Last week: ORLANDO URBAN TRAIL: Driving down North Orange Avenue, you can see a lot of tree removal has recently occurred. The Orlando Urban Trail is expanding as it works to fully connect its downtown loop. With three kids who enjoy biking, I’d love to see this become a safe option to take them across town. In the Atlanta Beltline trail, retailers and restaurateurs have storefronts facing their trail paired with outdoor artwork which improves the vibrancy of the thoroughfare. The Downtown Loop is not quite there yet, but the potential is there. Arborists never fear: According to the City of Orlando, removed trees will soon be replaced.

Muhammad Musri, president, Islamic Society of Central Florida

Last week: SPACE HISTORY: History was made last Wednesday evening when four civilians — Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski, and Sian Proctor — traveled to space from Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX vehicle on a three-day mission. Despite the fact the Crew Dragon is auto-piloted, civilian space travel still requires considerable training unlike traveling by plane. The Inspiration4 crew had completed centrifuge training, simulations, zero-gravity plane training, altitude training, classroom training and medical testing. While we are used to watching rockets take off from KSC, watching this one felt special, because it meant that someday soon any of us can travel to space.

Pamela Nabors, president/CEO, CareerSource Central Florida

Last week: CONSTRUCTION JOBS: The Orlando region is currently No. 2 in the U.S. for construction jobs, and it’s conceivable that we’ll soon be No. 1. Central Florida is experiencing an economic boom in development projects and with that comes new jobs and the need for skilled talent. Typically trades and construction are male-dominated industries, and women are not recruited either due to unconscious bias or lack of real career information and training. However, given that women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, companies must actively look to recruit, promote and retain both women and men. There are great career opportunities for all!

Looking ahead: WORKFORCE SUMMIT: Last week, the Florida Workforce Summit was held at Rosen Shingle Creek hotel with over 300 people in attendance. At a gathering of conference organizers, Harris Rosen came in person to express his heartfelt appreciation for attendance at the conference in light of the hardship in the industry this past couple of years. Mr. Rosen truly cares about his staff having jobs, and that summit attendees were given exceptional service. The event organizers took extraordinary steps and careful planning to ensure everyone’s safety. This successful conference demonstrates with proper care and planning, we can gather safely again.

Cole NeSmith, executive director, Creative City Project

Looking ahead: INTERACTIVE EXHIBIT: Joybox is an interactive art exhibition around all things happy! The Creative City Project show, in partnership with Orlando Health, features exhibits like “Count Your Blessings.” Guests text in their blessings, and they explode onto a three-dimensional structure of 200 LED displays. Or “Don’t Worry. Be Happy” where guests shred their worries (written on a piece of neon paper) to be added to a room full of glowing confetti. The show at Fulcrum Orlando is open through Oct. 24 and is part of the IMMERSE Festival, with 1,000 artists in downtown Orlando, Oct. 15-17.

Brendan O’Connor, editor in chief, Bungalower.com

Last week: SAVE THE MANATEES: According to a report by WMFE, we need to act now to save our manatees. 2021 saw an unprecedented 937 recorded manatee deaths. That’s more than double the yearly average of deaths we see of a population that numbers well under 10,000 individuals, with most of the deaths happening in the Indian River Lagoon. The cause? Starvation and habitat loss, exacerbated by increased COVID-caused boat collisions and algae blooms. If money’s an issue, it shouldn’t be hard to shoehorn the environment into the swollen tourism budget, should it?

Looking ahead: MAMMOTH DNA: Orlando-based branding agency Maven Creative just announced the acquisition of a new client straight out of a Michael Crichton novel. The company, Colossal, is the brainchild of Harvard University geneticist Dr. George Church, who is trying to splice woolly mammoth DNA into that of modern-day elephants — so essentially manufacturing a hairy elephant. You can read all about the project at colossal.com on a new Maven-designed website that was meant to look like a “… Venn diagram of Harvard meets MTV.”

Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder, FundEducationNow.org

Last week: FSA’S GONE, BUT WAIT: When something sounds too good, it usually is. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the “elimination” of the FSA at a press conference this week. The celebration was immediate. People thought that getting rid of the FSA meant the end of tying test scores to punitive high stakes such as mandatory third-grade retention, high-school graduation requirements, school grades, district funding and teacher evaluations. Sadly, the replacement for FSA, “progress monitoring,” will trade a single standardized test for year-long embedded computer assessments which will include those same high stakes. At the press conference, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran concurred when he said, “everything stays the same.”

Jim Philips, retired longtime radio talk-show host

Looking ahead: ANTI-VAX RADIO DEATHS: Five, count ‘em, five anti-vaccine radio hosts have now died from the virus they derided on the air. This includes Marc Bernier, a conservative decades-long radio favorite in Daytona. You have to have a sick heart to applaud their death, but this does not mean we have to accept the drivel they propagated on the air. How many Floridians got infected, got sick, maybe died because broadcast bloviators railed against a vaccine that has saved so many? How many Floridians were denied adequate care in ICUs because others took the beds after accepting anti-science blather from these guys?

Gloria Pickar, president emerita, League of Women Voters of Orange County

Last week: 35 BODACIOUS YEARS: Restaurateur and philanthropist Sam Miner died in January, but his original bodacious bar-b-que died last week. The iconic Winter Park location of Bubbalou’s Bodacious Bar-B-Que opened in 1986 and closed Sept. 11 with just four employees left. They relocated to the Apopka site of the three remaining Bubbalou’s restaurants. The owners cited the pandemic and inability to recruit employees. According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurant operators identify employee recruitment as their top challenge. Since COVID, some have had to raise non-tip wages to $15 an hour to survive and meet public demand.

Looking ahead: UF TOP FIVE: Florida’s future just got brighter with the impressive U.S. News and World Report ranking of the University of Florida as the fifth-best public university, tied with University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and University of California-Santa Barbara. Among all national universities, UF ranks 28th along with NYU, Tufts and Wake Forest. This is a stellar accomplishment for Florida’s top university with the lowest tuition among all these competitors. More than two-thirds graduate with no college debt. UF’s growing prominence improves its attraction for outstanding faculty, critical research grants, student scholars and graduate retention — hallmarks of a prestigious university.

Larry Pino, attorney and entrepreneur

Last week: PASSPORT PENALTIES: Starting this past Thursday, the state of Florida can now penalize businesses $5,000 per violation for any business which requires proof of vaccination for entry. In personal terms, what that means is that I cannot require anyone visiting our assisted-living communities to show whether they have been vaccinated before they enter and interact with our residents. While we all appreciate the long arm of government stepping in to prevent private enterprises from discriminating against individuals in violation of their constitutional rights, I question the constitutional basis of a law which prevents me from safeguarding the health and safety of our elders.

Looking ahead: INFLECTION POINTS: On July 20, 1969 – fulfilling John F. Kennedy’s vision – the United States landed a man on the moon for the first time in history. It was what could only be described as an inflection point. Fifty-two years later – fulfilling Elon Musk’s vision – privately owned SpaceX launched the first all-civilian crew into orbit 350 miles above the Earth, not as a government project, but as a precursor to space tourism. It is for today’s generation what can only be described as another inflection point. Inflection points in human civilization don’t just simply happen; they are the result of vision and courage. Our thanks to those who have both.

Joanie Schirm, GEC founding president; World Cup Orlando 1994 Committee chairman

Last week: WORLD CUP 2026: On Oct. 31, 1991, the Federation de International Football Association came for the first FIFA visit to Orlando. Accompanied by World Cup USA 1994 representatives, FIFA was getting ready to make the final choices for nine cities to participate in the first FIFA World Cup held in the USA. The visit entailed reviewing our stadium, training sites and accommodations for the athletes, security, ability to welcome international visitors and to see the commitment from the community. By the time FIFA and WC USA departed, they felt confident we could deliver. We did and, given the chance, will again in 2026.

Michael Slaymaker, professional fundraising executive

Last week: SPACE: THE FINAL FRONTIER: As I sat at Dubsdread on Wednesday night, numerous people got out their phones to video the bright light in the eastern sky. That was a Crew Dragon SpaceX Falcon 9 launch. Living in Central Florida makes these rocket launches commonplace. It is that frontier that makes us dream. I marvel at the intelligent minds who make space travel a reality. That we are now seeing self-driving ships is miraculous. Though most will never be healthy enough or wealthy enough to experience space travel, we should consider ourselves lucky to live so close to it all.

Jen Vargas, producer/host, FilmSlam

Last week: PETS NEED HOMES: Kudos to Orange County Fire Rescue and Orange County Sheriff’s Office for their quick action during the fire at the Greater Orlando Pet Alliance in Orlando location this week. Their combined efforts alongside the Pet Alliance staff and Orange County Animal Services saved so many furry lives. My heart goes out to both dedicated staff and volunteers, who are already stretched so thin. Thankfully the Pet Alliance has a great network of foster families to house animals looking for their forever homes. Keep an eye on the Pet Alliance’s social media channels to see how you can help.

Looking ahead: HISPANIC HERITAGE ART: Happy Hispanic Heritage Month! On display at Orange County’s Administration Building is the 2021 Hispanic Heritage Month Art Exhibition, going on now through Oct. 28 inside the atrium, as well as a showcase at Orlando International Airport. Organized by the Hispanic Heritage Committee of Greater Orange County, it features traditional dresses and art work by 43 Central Florida artists across multiple cultures. The Committee will also feature a virtual version of the exhibition on their Facebook and Instagram pages, @HispanicHeritageOC. All events are free and open to the public.

Michael Zais, political blogger for thedrunkenrepublican.com

Last week: PET ALLIANCE FIRE: Amidst all the craziness in the world that we’re consumed with, it all came to a screeching halt for me with the gut punch of learning of the tragic fire at the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando, resulting in the deaths of roughly a couple of dozen cats. Our family has rescued two cats and a dog over the past several years from the Pet Alliance, so I can tell you from personal experience how wonderful this organization is — surely a reflection of the many caring volunteers. Always in need of donations, I would encourage folks to donate money and/or pet supplies in their time of extraordinary need.

Looking ahead: HERO IN AFGHANISTAN: If you’re not familiar with Cory Mills, you should be. Mills is an Army combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is running against Democrat Stephanie Murphy in Florida’s 7th Congressional District. Mills led a private team of military veterans on a mission to rescue an American mother and her three children from Afghanistan, where they, and many others, had been left behind by the Biden Administration. After unsuccessful attempts to get a flight out, they finally succeeded with a dangerous ground evacuation. As more and more veterans are running for Congress — and winning — let’s make sure Cory Mills is one of them.