A weekend interview with ...
Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee chairman Don Gaetz. As the legislature's special session approaches, Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County superintendent, has heard talk from school district leaders about the need to protect their resources. That message also has come through in their comments about the pending Jan. 29 referendum to increase the homestead exemption - something opponents have said could strip billions from education coffers.
He suggests their worries might be misplaced.
Gaetz talked with reporter Jeff Solochek about education funding, both in the short and long term, for nearly an hour. He offered some intriguing ideas, perhaps most interesting of which was the notion of scaling back the full effect of the 2002 class-size reduction amendment to offset the revenue loss that many expect if the super homestead exemption wins approval.
First, though, he focused on the October special session. Lawmakers postponed the session, which was supposed to occur in September, because they couldn't agree on whether to make across-the-board or targeted cuts to cope with a $1.1-billion revenue shortfall. Gaetz suggested the Senate might be moving toward the more nuanced House approach, at least where education is concerned.
"My hope and my belief is that there will be disproportionate cuts in some places and softer cuts in others," Gaetz said, stressing that nothing is settled yet. "I have pushed for deeper cuts in the State Board of Education and the Department of Education, deeper and disproportionate. There are 2,500 people in the state Department of Education, and none of them have contact with students every day. So while many of them might do interesting and important things, they are not in the most important circle, and that is the circle of teachers around students."
He also wants to end funding for state-level programs that don't seem to warrant the money. He specifically mentioned a line item that gives grants to local corporations that seek to start schools within their walls.
"My sense of it is that, by the time the cuts reach the local school districts, they will be disproportionately shallower cuts," Gaetz said. "And I don't think the cuts will be across the board, in that everyone will get a haircut to the same length."
He suggested that school districts should have the flexibility to make cuts as they see fit, without the Legislature pinpointing a percentage here and another percentage there. But with that flexibility, Gaetz said, should come some wisdom.
"I believe that even when cuts affect school districts, school districts can still make and should make decisions to keep those cuts at the district level as far as possible," he said. "Local level cuts can be made in district-level overhead before students and teachers are asked to make significant cuts."
Lawmakers can write the rules in such a way to make that happen, if necessary, he added.
He segued into the issue of the referendum by saying that he doesn't think educators should look at what happens in the special session as a gauge of whether lawmakers really will hold schools harmless from the effects of a super homestead exemption.
After all, Gaetz said, no one ever promised to hold schools harmless from a sluggish economy. Yet the state's leaders have said they will protect public education from any revenue losses that come from changes to the property tax structure, which he strongly supports even though he has no intention of using it personally.
"The greatest danger to education funding in Florida is not a reduction in property taxes," Gaetz said. "The greatest danger to education funding in Florida is a stagnant economy."
He noted that almost three-quarters of the state and local budgets are consumption based. So rather than worrying about property taxes, education leaders should consider peoples' buying habits, and what the state can do to stimulate spending.
"Targeted reductions in taxes have a stimulating effect on the economy," Gaetz said.
As to where any revenue shortfall might be made up, Gaetz said the state should be pleased it didn't rely on a higher sales tax. After all, he said, with consumption down, the deficit could be even higher.
He looked to what he called a "constitutional trade-off" as perhaps the best solution.
The cost of moving the 2002 class-size reduction amendment to actual classroom counts is estimated to cost about $1.8-billion a year, he said. The worst-case scenario revenue loss to schools with the super homestead exemption is about $1.6-billion a year.
"It's remarkable," Gaetz said of the similar costs. "My recommendation to my friends in public education is to step back and take a breath, to ask themselves ... whether they think it would be good education policy to continue to have the limited flexibility that is provided by the school average" for class size.
"If they think it is, so when the 19th second grader moves in they don't have to move in a portable and hire a teacher they never would have hired, then split the class, then I would argue we ought to consider a constitutional trade-off."
He would ask voters to stop the class-size reduction amendment at the school average, in exchange for the property tax changes. Other key leaders have said they don't expect any class-size changes to occur at the same time or before the January vote, though they might support the idea in the future. Still, Gaetz expressed hope that educators would join him, rather than step out against the January referendum.
"My hope is we might step back and look at the issues as they relate or don't related to each other, and maybe not shoot ourselves in the foot this time," Gaetz said.
The state was able to come up with the money to reduce class sizes and still increase student funding, after all, he said. So people should believe lawmakers can keep education funding whole again this time.
"Somehow, it was okay to hold hands, close eyes and take a leap of faith that $10-billion could be found to implement the class-size amendment without having a negative effect on the operating costs and operating revenues of the public schools," Gaetz said. "This one ought to not require as much faith."