Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Oleta Fitzgerald, 58, is a tiny woman with a big office. Perfectly coiffed in a tweed business suit, she arises from her desk when I arrive and gracefully extends her hand to meet mine. Fitzgerald's soft and feminine exterior suggests her warmhearted and nurturing interior. But when it comes to executing her duties as the head of the Southern Regional Office of the Children's Defense Fund, Fitzgerald is a determined, almost unstoppable woman.
In her position, Fitzgerald is required to play hardball. Throughout our interview, she points out ways in which the state government has consistently curtailed efforts to address the needs of children. While legislators and the governor claim to spend 60 percent of its budget on education annually, Fitzgerald doesn't buy it. It's more like 20 percent, she says. She also points out the failure of the Legislature to fully fund MAEP, which is a formula used to ensure that all schools, even those in the poorest districts, receive adequate funding. Not only were legislators unwilling to provide the revenue schools need to perform well academically, Fitzgerald believes that the recent passage of a new education bill will effectively undermine reforms attempted since 1997.
"We can't seem to get the will on the part of our policy-makers to fully fund and ensure that our children get a decent education. (But) we can spend money on Tyson and Nissan and Kia," Fitzgerald says.
In 1995, Fitzgerald was approached to open a regional branch of the Children's Defense Fund, which would oversee several Southern states. Instead of heading to Atlanta to set up the operation, Fitzgerald requested that the office be based in Mississippi. She wanted to return home, she says.
When Hurricane Katrina struck, Fitzgerald and her all-female staff were back in the CDF office as soon as the lights returned and the computers were running, brainstorming for ways they could provide aid. Fitzgerald had emergency response experience; while working in the Department of Agriculture in 1993, Fitzgerald was picked to lead the response effort to the Midwest Flood. During Katrina, Fitzgerald helped reunite 70 evacuee families. In order to address overcrowding in schools from the influx of evacuees, Fitzgerald and the CDF are operating several "freedom" schools in Jackson. However, Fitzgerald fears that the programs aren't adequate, and that some children won't receive a proper education in the next school year.
Fitzgerald likens her work to a ministry, one that has brought great joy but also many losses. Still, Fitzgerald remains optimistic.
"By being in the fight, we've made it better than it would have been," she says.
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