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Gov. Crist proposes increase in money for schools

ST. PETERSBURG — Despite a still-rocky economy, Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday he'll push for an increase in Florida's education budget.

Crist, who is running for U.S. Senate, is recommending a $22.7 billion budget for pre-K through 12, with an increase in per-pupil spending from $6,870 to $7,045.

"It's all about education, and it's all about you," Crist told 220 students in the cafeteria at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School, where he made his budget announcement.

But Crist's education budget proposal is built on some big ifs.

It includes $433 million from a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which lawmakers have yet to warm to. And it's not clear what other parts of the state budget may be on the chopping block to cover an expected shortfall of $1.1 billion to $3.2 billion.

"His budget is killing me," said Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, who chairs the Senate education appropriations committee. "Where is he getting his money?"

It is ultimately the Legislature that cobbles the budget together. And Wise said Senate leaders have told him to plan for an education budget that is $800 million in the hole.

He said it's more realistic for the Legislature to shoot for a budget that maintains last year's funding levels.

The specifics about Crist's education budget were sketchy Monday. Details about the rest of his budget aren't expected to surface until later this week.

Crist's budget includes no new taxes or fees. But as they did last year, Crist and lawmakers will be able to plug in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money.

Crist also noted the state has $2 billion more in revenue this year than it did last year. "We're fortunate," he told reporters. "For the first time since I've been governor, we actually have more revenue coming into the state treasury than years past."

More specifically, Crist proposed:

• A $44.8 million increase to the state's voluntary prekindergarten program.

• Restoring the $100-per-student bonus in the school recognition program, which rewards schools that earn high grades from the state. (The bonus had been cut to $75 per student over the past two years.)

• Elimination of the $2,000 cap on bonuses to advanced placement and International Baccalaureate teachers. (They get $50 for each student who passes a standardized AP or IB exam.)

Crist's budget director, Jerry McDaniel, said the governor's budget does not pass more education spending on to local school districts — and picks up about $650 million that districts would lose because of falling property values.

By law, the state sets a property tax rate for school districts. And until last year, it had forced districts to pay a bigger portion of the state education budget eight years in a row.

"I would think that school boards generally would be pleased" with this year's proposal, McDaniel said.

But Wise said the governor's budget is too optimistic. He said the districts' share is likely to go up again, for a simple reason: "I don't have any other revenue."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Gov. Crist proposes increase in money for schools 01/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 25, 2010 10:41pm]
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