A weekend interview with Rep. Marti Coley, chair of the Florida House Pre-K-12 Appropriations Committee
Florida school district leaders blanched when they heard how much Gov. Rick Scott wanted to cut funding to public education in the state. They've begun pinning their hopes on lawmakers to put together a budget that's more reasonable. Rep. Marti Coley, a longtime educator who now chairs the House Pre-K-12 Appropriations Committee, says she hopes to protect pre-student funding as much as possible. Coley spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her views on the budget process coming when the legislative session begins in March.
I've been talking to a lot of school district people and they're all afraid of what's coming out of Tallahassee, especially the governor's budget. So I wanted to start out by asking you what do you see as the future of the governor's budget and what do you see as the reality of what is coming to the schools?
The governor's budget is just like every other governor's budget we have ever received. It is a proposal. It contains information in it that we will consider, some of which may end up in our final budget, some of it may not. We have just begun a budget review exercise that all of my committee members are participating in. They truly are. It is not just a feel-good exercise. It is one I have asked them to take seriously and look at each line item and make recommendations of where and how much they would reduce to reach our target allotment.
Now, you have to remember that is simply an exercise. Because we have not been given an allocation. We are just beginning to evaluate where we would place our priorities. So really it's too early for me to even tell you because as the chair I am taking their recommendations into consideration and want to look at the information we get after everyone turns it in. They have until March 1. Once that information is in, staff will do a spreadsheet showing us the average recommendation and then we will go from there. But I think it will give us a good indication of where these members place priorities. And then we will move forward from that. It's just too early to tell.
I know that a lot of districts are still concerned that federal funding has hit the cliff and they are looking at millions of dollars that are becoming a hole, and the possibility of laying off hundreds of people. Is there anything you can do to mitigate that to even some degree?
We will certainly, again, prioritizing different line items knowing that our core mission is to that per student funding. That is most important. Now, do I think that FEFP won't take a reduction? I don't think that's realistic. I think it will, probably, but again I don't know what our allocation will be. I think it will be reduced. But my goal is to protect that part of the budget more than anything else.
Can you give me an example of anything in the budget that might be ...
No. I'm just going to be real blunt with you. Because I want to see what the budget review exercise comes up with, to see what priorities are set by other members. And then we will take that into consideration.
Can you tell me how the ideas of the teacher quality bills fit in with what's going on on the budget front?
It is certainly part of Race to the Top and part of the direction that we as a Legislature have been moving in for the past couple of years. But it doesn't directly impact the budget because right now they do have money to implement the assessments that will be necessary for the teacher quality bill.
What about class size?
We have a constitutional mandate to fund it. We have done so in the past and we will continue to do so now.
I guess I look at it from the perspective of, you have to have a certain number of teachers to meet the class size requirements, yet at the same time districts are talking about the need to lay off people because of budget holes. It doesn't seem to necessarily connect.
Right. And again, as we design our budget I would certainly hope districts would look at other areas to reduce rather than laying people off.
Are you looking at a similar bill to the one the Senate is looking at with regard to class size?
We are evaluating it. Yes.
I also wonder about the Edujobs fund, because there are concerns that districts can't spend that money two times. I believe it was Broward that used all the money this year to prevent layoffs. So how can they use that money again next year?
My understanding is they have not used all of it. Not all of the money has been drawn down.
Is it still the idea to take the full amount and attach it to next year's budget regardless of how much is spent this year?
We are looking at that. Yes.
If they do that, doesn't it just take the money off the back end, then and make it like a lottery shuffle?
Well, they were instructed in the summer by the Legislative Budget Committee to save some of that money knowing we would have even more reductions next year.
I've heard a 5 percent number. Is that about right? 5 percent reductions for the coming year?
Again, it's too early to tell.
Are you going to make any crystal ball predictions for me?
No, I am not. (Laughs)
Is there anything else you can tell me about how you think this budget is going to play out and where you think the pain is going to fall?
I think if you talk to me in another week and a half I will have more information. But I really truly want to see the budget reduction exercise that we are asking members to complete. I think that's important to see where members are placing priorities. Once I get that information we will look further and have more information.
You told me your top priority was keeping the FEFP as close to whole as possible. Can you tell me if you have any other one or two priorities that you are trying to aim for?
Well, I mean, that is my top priority and I think that is the one we need to emphasize. ... Sorry I couldn't give you more.
I'll call you back in a week and a half and ask for more.