WESLEY CHAPEL — It said "winter vacation" on the Pasco County School District calendar. But with a special legislative session on the state budget just days away, superintendent Heather Fiorentino was not vacationing Monday.
Instead, she spent the better part of the afternoon reaching out to lawmakers, hoping to persuade them to eliminate some unfunded mandates and give school districts more flexibility in spending the money they do have.
"We can do it if they let us do our jobs," Fiorentino said after sitting with state Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who serves on the Joint Legislative Budget Council and on several education-related committees.
The ideas Fiorentino put forth include:
• Allowing districts to use money ordinarily set aside for capital projects to fund general operations.
• Further delaying full implementation of the class size amendment.
• Postponing the mandatory establishment of district-level K-8 virtual education programs.
• Changing the state's academic standards review process, currently every four years, so each subject aligns with its six-year textbook adoption cycle.
"They need to give us the flexibility with the money," Fiorentino said, noting that Weatherford asked her to send some legislative language to implement at least some of her suggestions. "We're hoping that after our meetings with all the different legislators, they'll understand we all have the same goal" — educating children while also being fiscally responsible.
Weatherford frequently has offered his support for the concept of freeing school districts to spend money without so many restrictions. He did so again Monday.
"She gave me some ideas of things to do," Weatherford said, noting in particular the idea of giving districts flexibility in how they use their capital funds. "This is a crisis we're in. We don't need to be micromanaging."
When Weatherford arrives in Tallahassee, he's likely to find many others who agree.
Senate president pro tem Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican, observed that the school board members and superintendents who control local education spending are accountable to taxpayers and voters, "and they're the experts."
"I always have been a proponent and supporter of relaxing the mandates," said Fasano, who received Fiorentino's list of ideas in an e-mail. "I have never had a problem with taking a lot of the strings away from the money they have to spend."
Another key proponent of this philosophy is Senate Education chairwoman Nancy Detert, a Sarasota County Republican who once served on the Sarasota School Board. Fiorentino counts Detert as a friend, and planned to share her thoughts with Detert this week, too.
When she heard of Fiorentino's effort, Detert quickly signaled her backing.
"We have to offer some flexibility instead of money," she said. "Trust the local school districts to decide where to spend the money."
Some of the suggestions could take hold in the special session, Weatherford said. But with limited time for negotiations, he added, it's more likely that the larger group would get consideration during the regular spring session.
The Pasco School Board has scheduled a budget workshop for Jan. 20, after the special session is over. Board members have asked for proposals to cut the budget by as much as $15-million. Fiorentino said she hoped her efforts might lessen the impact.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.