A weekend interview with ...
... Nancy Detert, chairwoman of the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee. Detert, a Sarasota Republican, spoke with Jeff Solochek about the financial choices for education that lawmakers face as they approach a special legislative session that begins Monday.
What should we expecting in the special session? I know that money is the topic, and I was wondering how schools should be expecting to fare. Because everybody seems to be expecting the worst.
Well, I think that there's just no question that the schools are going to lose money. For one thing, the money is attached to the student, and we've had 30,000 students leave the state of Florida and leave the school system. So that money will not be replaced. My chore will be to try to protect the rest and make sure there are no other cuts other than the money you would have naturally lost due to student decline.
How can you do that, while everybody seems to be thinking that 2-3 percent is what's coming as a first round of cuts? Or, I guess this would be the second round of cuts.
Well, actually, I'm pretty new to this, but I think they've had a 4 percent hold back, and we have to hope we don't hit another 4 percent cut. But it's very difficult to balance the budget, which we have to legally do, and not touch health care and education when they make up most of the budget.
Are there certain parts of education that would be more likely to get cut than other parts?
What I said in the meeting, and seem to have gotten a favorable response, is we have to face the fact that we certainly have no new money to give. Everyone knows there will be some cuts. And what I'm saying is we have to offer some flexibility instead of money. Trust the local school districts to decide where to spend the money.
Have you heard from any local school districts as to how they might want to achieve that goal?
It would be different in all 67 counties. In fact (Monday Dec. 29) at 3:30 I (had) a meeting with our local Sarasota superintendent of schools, who's pretty new in the last two years. ... I'm asking her what she's going to be cutting.
I spoke with Heather Fiorentino in Pasco and she was putting together a list of unfunded mandates that she would like to see lawmakers do away with or somehow allow them to be ...
I think that's fine. In tough times, you know, we're willing to cooperate. I was saying that we need to trust them to do whatever they can with their own budget. And we need to do a paperwork reduction, we need to reduce some of the testing that's required. I think that we need to do whatever we can in tough times to make the life of the teacher and student better. I've never had a teacher complain about teaching kids. They complain about paperwork, all the stupid rules and regulations that we inflict on them. So since we're kind of boxed in money-wise, I think by offering them 100 percent flexibility it could ease the pain a little.
Do you see the class-size amendment as having any role to play in all of this?
Yes. I mean, part of our budget problems are all of the things that voters voted for that then they forgot they voted for it, and it costs money. The class-size amendment costs us $600-million a year, universal pre-k costs $400-million a year. And they escalate each and every year. I think what we're going to do is give the districts some flexibility in the class-size amendment, also, so that they can do a district-wide average rather than a class average.
That could only work for one more year, though. Then the state would have to change things, I mean dramatically, because the deadlines are set forth in the constitution. How do you get around that if the financial crisis continues?
Well, we would either have to go back to the voters or do some sort of legislative extension. I am for, frankly, declaring a financial emergency and to set this financial emergency for two years, so it has a beginning date and an ending date. And within those two years to give school districts flexibility -- totally -- even including spending capital money on operating if that's the best they can do.
I was going to ask about that. I've heard a lot of people say, Why do we have to have money being spent on buildings right now?
Well, I think it's crazy -- even if you're not building a building -- it's crazy to have money in your savings when you have zero in your checking and can't pay your bills. And yes it would be stupid to build buildings that you then can't staff.
It sounds like drastic times right now.
That's why I say I think a legal financial emergency declaration will help to break the chains that we've put on the school districts. Maybe we'll all end up better off in the end. I would also ask for some transparency, so that we know where they're spending their money. Give them the freedom to spend as they want so long as they're disclosing where the money went.
Have you heard from leadership? Do they support these ideas?
This was what I had said at my first Education meeting, and I invited everyone to stop finger pointing and shooting arrows and pull a chair up to the table and bring ideas. Afterward, everyone filled my office. I heard from teachers unions, the superintendents association, the school boards association. Everyone is willing to cooperate.