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FAU report: South Florida must improve in health care, education, environment

Sun-Sentinel - 6/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
by Scott Travis

South Florida has made too little progress in tackling such tough issues as AIDS, transportation and poverty, according to a new Florida Atlantic University study.

"Preserving Paradise: SoFlo's Call to Action," is a 63-page glimpse into the seven-county coastal region from Sebastian in Indian River County to Key West. It was drafted by FAU's Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions.

The report measured nine key areas, most of which showed little progress or decline. One bright spot was the region's "innovative economy," praising South Florida for attracting biotech companies such as The Scripps Research Institute as well as new, higher-wage sectors in information technology, aviation and entertainment.

But the authors worry there might not be an educated work force to fill those jobs. South Florida's graduation rates and SAT scores are below the national average, the report says. And the seven counties in the study are facing $156 million in education cuts, said James Murley, director for the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions.

"At a time when you're investing money in biotech to train people to live here, we're dis-investing in education in South Florida," he said.

Area school officials said they are doing a good job with limited resources, noting the Broad Foundation this year named Broward and Miami-Dade school districts as finalists for a $1 million award given to school districts that demonstrate overall academic performance and reduce achievement gaps between high- and low-income students. The foundation seeks to improve public education through a number of initiatives, including better management.

"Florida is at the bottom of the nation in school funding," said Robin Bartleman, chairwoman of the Broward County School Board. "In Broward County, we continue to excel even though the state doesn't value education and fund it adequately. Imagine what we could do if we received middle-of-the-road funding."

The report also said that there are significant income disparities among whites and minorities and that many of the region's immigrants transfer some of their earnings to their home countries, "limiting their ability to build wealth and improve living conditions locally."

Community health is listed as another area of concern. Tobacco use, cancer mortality and infant mortality rates are going down. But low-weight births, obesity and diabetes are significant problems, the report said. AIDS remains a major challenge as well, with Miami-Dade leading the nation in the total number of new HIV cases with 1,382. Broward has the highest rate of new cases per 100,000 people, 58, compared to the state average of 30.

St. Lucie County and Palm Beach County were the highest in the state for AIDS cases among blacks.

"We continue to try to do what we can on the educational side," said Tim O'Connor, a spokesman for the Palm Beach County Health Department. "We've made some inroads, but there's definite room for improvement."

Florida has the highest rate of mental illness in the nation, the report states, with 9 percent of Floridians experiencing some form of mental illness, compared with 3 percent nationally. In Miami-Dade, more than 200,000 people reportedly have some form of mental illness, but only 13 percent receive treatment, according to the report.

The report also raises concerns about transportation. Tri-Rail ridership has increased, but it faces potentially crippling budget cuts. Also, the area hasn't gotten federal funding needed for planned improvements to ports and airports in South Florida.

On environmental issues, the report gives the region a mixed grade, saying there is heightened awareness for ecosystem restoration and water-supply projects, but many projects are behind schedule. Trends in fish landings and wading birds do not demonstrate increasing ecosystem health, the report says.

"I think they've done a good job of illuminating issues we've all been talking about," said Carolyn Dekle, executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council.

The report doesn't list any specific solutions for any of the issues identified.

"We have information on what others have done, but you can't dictate those solutions," he said. "The entities responsible have to agree on solutions."