A $3 million veto by Gov. Rick Scott might become a $63 million budget cut that affects one of the governor's celebrated priorities — improved technology for Florida's schools.
"We're in a little bit of a pickle here," said state Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity. "I have requested a definite clarification."
Legg has concerns that $60 million allocated in the 2015-16 budget for classroom technology will not be released to school districts because the money is tied to a $3 million study that Scott rejected.
In his veto message Tuesday, Scott wrote that the study, which would analyze schools' digital classroom needs, would duplicate a five-year plan already required in statute. He also touted the $60 million for technology as a highlight of efforts to create a world-class education for students, and part of a historic level of K-12 funding.
But the budget implementing bill, which Scott signed the same day, made district participation in the $3 million study a prerequisite to accessing the $60 million.
A spokeswoman from the governor's office pointed to another part of the bill and suggested it allows Scott to cut the study without harming the technology funding. State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, the House appropriations chairman, said he believes that's a reasonable interpretation, "however the executive branch will need to make their own determination."
Veteran Tallahassee education lawyer Ron Meyer questioned that point of view. He called the bill's language "unambiguous" in its connection of the two expenses.
Barring new action by lawmakers, or a creative interpretation of the law by administration attorneys, it appears the money can't be disbursed because the required study won't be done, he said.
"I don't know if (Scott) can unring a bell," said Meyer, who works regularly for the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers group. "I'm not persuaded that he can."
Legg, who last fall held a day-long summit with educators on how to improve school technology, said senators requested the analysis for a reason. Last year, the Legislature put $40 million toward the effort with no real strings attached to the purchases.
But as the amount rises, Legg said, the Senate wanted to ensure the state had uniform definitions and expectations regarding the digital classroom.
"We do not want to put money into the technology area until we can prove that money is being wisely spent," he said. "Since there is no statewide gap analysis, I don't see how that money can be released."
Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning warned of this possibility on the day Scott issued his veto.
"With one stroke of his veto pen, the governor could potentially harm every school district and charter school family in Florida," Browning, a former secretary of state in Scott's administration, said at the time.
Pasco schools anticipated receiving just under $2 million from the allocation, some of which would go toward a new $6.5 million contract to lease computers and iPads from Apple.
"If in fact we don't get the digital classroom dollars, we will need to make adjustments, not fund things in order to pay for our priorities," Browning said.
School districts are in the middle of crafting their budgets, with public hearings fast approaching. Their fiscal year begins Wednesday.
"We've got to get an answer so we know how to go about budgeting," Browning said.
Department of Education officials were investigating the issue on Friday.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.