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Federal stimulus money makes Florida schools' picture less grim

In one fell swoop, the federal government may have turned the dreary school funding situation in Florida from disastrous to merely terrible.

The $789 billion stimulus package that President Obama signed Tuesday is slated to send more than $3 billion to Florida's K-12 public schools over two years, including hundreds of millions of dollars that may patch massive holes in district budgets next year.

Funding details for individual school districts remain sketchy.

But statewide, the federal money could shrink the size of Florida's pending education shortfall by half. And for some hard-hit districts, it might be enough to save jobs and critical programs and prevent teacher pay cuts.

"These are historic levels (of funding)," U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said after using Tampa's Chamberlain High School as a backdrop to tout the stimulus. "They are going to keep teachers teaching."

"If there was ever a time that we needed (a stimulus), it's now," said Pinellas School Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea.

District officials are grateful. But they're still not breathing easily.

The money isn't recurring. It's not likely to undo past cuts. It's still unclear exactly how much will go to K-12 and what strings are attached. And even under a best-case scenario, Florida will still face steep cuts in school spending.

"It's a lot of money. And it will be a big help. But it can't solve the total problem of the revenue shortfall," said Hillsborough schools lobbyist Connie Milito.

Since October 2007, the Legislature has cut $1.4 billion in core K-12 education funding, and may have to trim $300 million more before this fiscal year ends in June. Insiders peg next year's education hole at $1.5 billion to $2 billion.

The stimulus pours relief from several pots of money.

According to one analysis, Florida schools will get $622 million in special education grants, $509 million for high-poverty schools, $148 million in school-improvement grants, $75 million for Head Start, $109 million in child care and development grants, and $31 million for education technology. In higher education, Florida will get $937 million for Pell grants.

More important, Florida schools will get $2.2 billion from a fiscal stabilization fund, which Congress set up to help state and local governments balance budgets and avoid layoffs.

Some of that money will be used for Florida's universities and community colleges. But how much was unclear Tuesday.

"Every time I look at it or talk to somebody else, I feel like I'm working a Ouija board," said John Delaney, interim chancellor of the state university system. "I get a different answer every time."

He expects a clearer picture any day. So do district officials.

Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith is set to talk to superintendents and school board members in a conference call today.

Until details emerge, area school officials said they'll keep planning for big cuts.

While "hopeful" that the stimulus will minimize cuts, Pasco Superintendent Heather Fiorentino wrote in an e-mail to staff Monday that "we must proceed in our budgeting process with the information currently available."

In Pinellas on Tuesday, School Board members discussed the possibility of cutting employee pay up to 10 percent.

"Every time we hear from the state about possible changes, we start recalculating," O'Shea said. "The day we get the word on the stimulus, we'll start playing with those numbers."

Even with federal help, Florida schools will remain in a tight spot because of plummeting state revenues.

"I believe it will take a combination of the stimulus and new revenue sources to hold us," said Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators.

The stimulus may help most where it was most targeted.

Hillsborough, for example, will get $44 million for a program that helps students with disabilities. Officials there sounded giddy over the possibility of purchasing technology they couldn't afford before, such as language software to help autistic students and Smart Boards to supplement classroom instruction.

"Hillsborough has 29,000 students with disabilities," said Wynne Tye, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "So certainly we can do some very, very effective programs, put some things in place that we're going to get the bang for our buck."

Technically, Florida schools are at risk of missing out on much of the stimulus money. Federal education programs require states to maintain certain levels of school funding to receive additional federal money — a requirement Florida does not meet because of recent cuts.

Gov. Charlie Crist is banking on a waiver from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. State education leaders are confident Duncan will grant one.

The two other states at risk of not getting the federal money are California, home to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Nevada, home to Senate President Harry Reid.

Times staff writers Letitia Stein, Donna Winchester and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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Education boost

Here's an estimate of what Florida's public K-12 and higher education schools stand to gain over the next two years from the stimulus plan.

Fiscal stabilization fund $2.2 billion
Federal Pell grants $936.5 million
Disabled students $622.1 million
Title I $508.9 million
School improvement grants $147.5 million
Child care & development block grant $108.9 million
Head Start $75.4 million
Educational technology $30.7 million
Total $4.6 billion
Source: National Education Association

Federal stimulus money makes Florida schools' picture less grim 02/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 18, 2009 8:28am]
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