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Plans are numerous, consensus rare

Lawmakers tackling Florida's school crowding problem have plenty of nicely packaged proposals with catchy names.

What they don't have is anything close to an agreement on the most basic issues: how much to spend and where to spend it.

Just one week before the Legislature convenes in a special session on the issue, Monday brought yet another proposal, plus debate over a Times article Sunday revealing that the state has 36 percent more portables than even the experts knew.

House Speaker Daniel Webster announced his plan, called SMART (Soundly-made, Accountable, Reasonable & Thrifty) Schools. It is a $1.5-billion program that includes loaning money to some districts and giving money to districts that need construction funds even after raising taxes locally.

Reaction to Webster's idea to have districts borrow money from the state was far from warm.

"Rather than loans, school districts need cash to build new schools now," said Chiles' spokeswoman, April Herrle. "They are already strapped for cash, and adding to their debt doesn't help them."

It will be a busy week ahead. "There's no question there's going to be some tough, sitting-around-the table with the Democrats, the Republicans and the governor's office," said Brewser Brown, spokesman for Education Commissioner Frank Brogan. "We're just trying to find common ground."

Further complicating the debate Monday was a Times survey of all 67 school districts showing about 6,000 more portables blanketing Florida than even state experts realized. Lawmakers, the governor's office, even the education commissioner's office had been relying on much lower figures for portables _ the result of inaccurate and incomplete record-keeping _ to determine how much money is needed to get kids into traditional classrooms.

The new numbers _ which mean almost a half million children could be learning in portables _ caught state officials by surprise Monday.

"That just shows that our problem is even greater," Gov. Lawton Chiles said. "It just tells me that this is a problem we've got to put behind us."

For some lawmakers, the new numbers will push the need for traditional classrooms even higher.

"I find it incredible that there are 6,000 portables that the state doesn't know about. . . . I consider any portable to be unsatisfactory," said Senate Minority Leader Ken Jenne, D-Fort Lauderdale.

"We want classrooms for our children. We don't want them relegated to portables," said Rep. Cynthia Chestnut, D-Gainesville, former chairwoman of the House education committee.

The new portables numbers could be seen in a different way: There's a lot more space than previously thought for kids, so less money is needed to build for new schools.

But even conservative Republicans who don't want to raise taxes weren't willing to say the new figures mean there is less need for new schools.

"We're not going to change the numbers," said Senate Republican Leader Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach.

The trouble is, which numbers should be used? There's a maze of figures confronting lawmakers:

Senate President Toni Jennings' "Classrooms First" proposal calls for the state to send $220-million to school districts for building schools, which could raise $2.34-billion if districts borrow against that money for 20 years. Jennings' plan also includes a $50-million increase in a school construction fund that encourages frugal building and an extra $30-million for rural counties with low tax bases.

The Senate Democrats' so-called "Remedy" plan includes issuing bonds against money from the state lottery to raise $2.6-billion to build and repair schools.

Webster's $1.5-billion SMART proposal also relies on bonding lottery dollars, and includes a one-time increase of $200-million to repair and renovate schools. Another $500-million would be distributed to school districts that have already tried to help themselves by raising taxes, charging impact fees and getting money for schools in other ways.

Another $600-million would be put in a "Classrooms Now" loan program to build schools and remove portables considered unsatisfactory and unsafe. There were few details about how the loans would work, and other state officials were wary Monday.

Chiles is endorsing a plan by his Governor's Commission on Education, which says Florida needs $3.3-billion for new schools during the next five years. Among the recommendations: Allowing local school boards to raise a half-penny sales tax without voter approval. That will be the most contentious issue of the special session.

Despite all the differences in the plans, Democrats and Republicans were trying to look on the bright side Monday.

At least there are plans to discuss.

"Now everyone has come to the table to negotiate," said Senate Democratic Leader Jenne.

County-by-county portable count

Here are all 67 Florida counties, with the number of portable classrooms they reported to the state, followed by the number they actually have. Counties with + are considered by state officials to be the most in need of construction dollars.

COUNTY REPORTED ACTUAL

ALACHUA 187 335

BAKER 32 43

BAY 131 240

BRADFORD 38 34

BREVARD 209 603

BROWARD 1,907 2,089+

CALHOUN 12 7

CHARLOTTE 17 115

CITRUS 16 43

CLAY 769 834+

COLLIER 151 200

COLUMBIA 144 147

DADE 2,160 2,416+

DE SOTO 33 33

DIXIE 38 45

DUVAL 333 595+

ESCAMBIA 277 436+

FLAGLER 5 18

FRANKLIN 1 7

GADSDEN 81 106

GILCHRIST 3 9

GLADES 8 6

GULF 10 10

HAMILTON 16 16

HARDEE 49 43

HENDRY 35 69

HERNANDO 33 101

HIGHLAND 68 68

HILLSBOROUGH 1,129 1,862

HOLMES 23 32

INDIAN RIVER 77 77

JACKSON 78 94

JEFFERSON 13 13

LAFAYETTE 3 2

LAKE 274 333+

LEE 170 381

LEON 162 209

LEVY 89 95

LIBERTY 10 5

MADISON 23 26

MANATEE 316 394

MARION 329 513+

MARTIN 85 70

MONROE 47 53

NASSAU 52 78

OKALOOSA 89 93

OKEECHOBEE 41 41

ORANGE 1,867 3,351+

OSCEOLA 131 259+

PALM BEACH 1,117 1,610

PASCO 330 372

PINELLAS 385 529

POLK 776 829

PUTNAM 104 95

SANTA ROSA 171 160

SARASOTA 518 535

SEMINOLE 203 347+

ST. JOHN 99 136

ST. LUCIE 200 279

SUMTER 65 81

SUWANEE 27 28

TAYLOR 42 40

UNION 1 14

VOLUSIA 627 727

WAKULLA 34 33

WALTON 28 17

WASHINGTON 16 17

STATEWIDE 16,514 22,498

SOURCE: Florida Department of Education; Times survey of school districts

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