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With many twists and turns, Florida lawmakers keep up per-student spending

TALLAHASSEE — After back-to-back years of cuts to schools, lawmakers have figured out a way to hold per-student funding steady.

But it comes at a price.

Programs outside the formula for student spending, such as mentoring and teacher development, would take cuts up to 20 percent. For a period of time, school board salaries would be limited to lawmaker levels, while superintendents would take 5 percent pay cuts. And school districts would be granted the freedom to set their calendars to maximize savings, even if it means longer school days in a four-day week.

But what has drawn some of the loudest opposition from Democrats is the way Republicans in the House have proposed rewriting the formula. Per-student funding actually increases slightly over last year, from $6,860.36 to $6,890.46, but it would include money that previously wasn't part of the formula.

"What we're doing is we're inflating, we're shifting, we're doing these things to make education seem as though it's priority enough to get the stimulus dollars," said Rep. Dwight Bullard, R-Miami, a member of the House preK-12 appropriations committee, which approved its budget Thursday.

Putting money for transportation and instructional materials into the per-student formula is meant to give districts more flexibility, Republican leaders say, which they requested.

The Senate preK-12 budget, approved Wednesday in committee, proposes even greater changes to maintain per-student funding at the 2008-09 level of $6,860.36: no district-paid employee cell phones or other wireless communication unless authorized by the school board; no district-paid out-of-state travel unless approved by the school board; and textbooks would be kept in circulation for eight years rather than six.

You'll find opponents of all these measures in the halls of the Capitol, and they're lobbying hard to get lawmakers to reconsider.

"It doesn't make any difference what you do, they're never going to be happy," said Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, chair of the Senate preK-12 appropriations committee. "And I know that. And I take Prozac and Xanax so that I don't have to deal with them all the time and be upset."

The joint proposal to limit school board member salaries was a surprise for many.

"If you want to cut constitutional officer salaries across the board statewide, then that's perfectly acceptable to us," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, "but just to pick out school board members and superintendents … I don't think it's fair."

Blanton's analysis shows 34 school boards in the state earn more than the lawmaker salary of $30,336, and seven would take a pay cut of about $10,000, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.

But all these measures feed into what everyone said was crucial: maintain the per-student funding level.

"They're trying to hold us at a level balance, which is what we've asked them to do, so that piece is good," said Connie Milito, lobbyist for Hillsborough County schools. "Overall, they're working really hard to get us a good budget."

Both the House and Senate budgets rely heavily on $2.2 billion in federal stimulus dollars. But to qualify, Florida must receive a waiver from the federal government because it has not maintained education funding.

In addition, the Senate education budget includes money from an unapproved gaming compact and additional revenues like a cigarette tax increase so far lacking support from House Republicans.

Senate leaders recognize that the gamble is on them if the money they're banking on doesn't come to pass.

In the House, Democrats clamor for such revenues to be considered to stack up education funding, but Republicans aren't having it.

"We're working with money that we know, or are 99 percent sure, in terms of stabilization money, that we are going to get," said Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, chair of the House preK-12 appropriations committee.

There's a lot of work to be done in the coming weeks to get House and Senate proposals together, on the funding and the policy ideas. But the bottom line is not as scary as expected.

"They really are holding us harmless to the extent of where we are today," Blanton said. "Probably that's as good as we're going to get."

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

With many twists and turns, Florida lawmakers keep up per-student spending 04/02/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 3, 2009 1:14pm]
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