In preparation for Monday's special legislative session, Pasco County schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino has been urging Florida lawmakers to look for ways to ease spending requirements placed on school districts.
She's got a kindred spirit in Senate Education Committee chairwoman Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who has called for "100 percent flexibility" for districts.
What should we be expecting in the special session?
Well, I think that there's just no question that the schools are going to lose money. For one thing, the money is attached to the student, and we've had 30,000 students leave the state of Florida. … So that money will not be replaced. My chore will be to try to protect the rest and make sure there are no other cuts other than the money you would have naturally lost due to student decline.
How can you do that, while everybody seems to be thinking that 2-3 percent is what's coming?
They've had a 4 percent holdback, and we have to hope we don't hit another 4 percent cut. But it's very difficult to balance the budget, which we have to legally do, and not touch health care and education when they make up most of the budget.
Are there certain parts of education that would be more likely to get cut than other parts?
We have to face the fact that we certainly have no new money to give. Everyone knows there will be some cuts. And what I'm saying is we have to offer some flexibility instead of money. Trust the local school districts to decide where to spend the money.
I spoke with Heather Fiorentino in Pasco and she was putting together a list of unfunded mandates that she would like to see lawmakers do away with.
I think that's fine. In tough times, you know, we're willing to cooperate. I was saying that we need to trust them to do whatever they can with their own budget. And we need to do a paperwork reduction, we need to reduce some of the testing that's required.
I think that we need to do whatever we can in tough times to make the life of the teacher and student better. I've never had a teacher complain about teaching kids. They complain about paperwork, all the stupid rules and regulations that we inflict on them. So since we're kind of boxed in money-wise, I think by offering them 100 percent flexibility, it could ease the pain a little.
Do you see the class-size amendment as having any role to play in all of this?
Yes. I mean, part of our budget problems are all of the things that voters voted for that then they forgot they voted for it, and it costs money. The class-size amendment costs us $600-million a year, universal pre-k costs $400-million a year. And they escalate each and every year. I think what we're going to do is give the districts some flexibility in the class-size amendment, also, so that they can do a district-wide average rather than a class average.
That could only work for one more year, though. Then the state would have to change things, I mean dramatically, because the deadlines are set forth in the Constitution. How do you get around that if the financial crisis continues?
Well, we would either have to go back to the voters or do some sort of legislative extension. I am for, frankly, declaring a financial emergency and to set this financial emergency for two years, so it has a beginning date and an ending date. And within those two years to give school districts flexibility — totally — even including spending capital money on operating if that's the best they can do.
I was going to ask about that. I've heard a lot of people say, Why do we have to have money being spent on buildings right now?
Well, I think it's crazy — even if you're not building a building — it's crazy to have money in your savings when you have zero in your checking and can't pay your bills. And yes it would be stupid to build buildings that you then can't staff.
It sounds like drastic times right now.
That's why I say I think a legal financial emergency declaration will help to break the chains that we've put on the school districts. Maybe we'll all end up better off in the end. I would also ask for some transparency, so that we know where they're spending their money. Give them the freedom to spend as they want so long as they're disclosing where the money went.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.