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Prevailing view: Use lottery to build schools

If the state's school crowding problem is to be solved, it appears that lottery money will be a big part of the plan.

Democrats, Republicans, even the governor have proposed using dollars from Florida's lottery to help build schools.

But a growing number of educators question whether school construction is the kind of "enhancement" for which lottery dollars were intended.

"It's getting pretty crazy when we consider it an enhancement to provide buildings for kids to go to school," said Mike Bookman, assistant superintendent for Hillsborough County schools. "I've always thought that was a basic necessity."

Lawmakers have been scrambling to craft a compromise on the crowded-school problem in time for next week's special legislative session. After months of rancorous debate and precious little agreement, finally a common thread: Issue bonds backed by lottery proceeds to raise more than a billion dollars for school construction and renovation.

The plans offered by House Speaker Daniel Webster, Gov. Lawton Chiles and Senate Democrats differ in their numbers, but all call for bonding and replacing lottery dollars in school-district budgets with money from general revenue. Senate President Toni Jennings' plan, however, does not.

As for the question of whether that is an appropriate use of money from a lottery that voters approved 11 years ago with the understanding it would "enhance" Florida's schools, lawmakers said it is not a problem.

"Yes, I believe it definitely is an enhancement," Webster said as he presented his proposal.

"Yes," said Edie Ousley, spokeswoman for Gov. Chiles, "where we did not have classrooms before, we will."

Education Commissioner Frank Brogan also is supporting the bonding of lottery dollars.

"The commissioner believes that over the next few years we should separate the lottery money from the general budget and earmark it for special programs for education _ scholarships, construction," said spokesman Brewser Brown.

Brogan led the push to devote lottery dollars to college scholarships for Florida high school graduates.

But some are not so sure.

"An enhancement? You have to squint a lot when you say that to make it true," said Pasco County school Superintendent John Long, a former legislator. "It's not really an enhancement unless you say, "We've got a critical problem and lottery dollars will help us get out of the problem.' "

"I have been skeptical about the way they have used the lottery money and this doesn't help," said Elizabeth Peck, who has a daughter at Hunter's Green Elementary School in Tampa. "Enhancements are new computers, new software, new books. For buildings? Absolutely not. I can't even formulate the thoughts of how ridiculous that is."

Since the lottery began in 1988 (it was approved by voters in 1986), it has been plagued by criticism that for each dollar that goes to education, a dollar of general revenue is taken from the schools and sent elsewhere.

Lottery reformers have proposed using the money for specific, identifiable programs that would not exist if not for lottery money _ in other words, enhancements.

Now, some of the money is used for the popular Bright Futures scholarships, which go to high school graduates who have a "B" average in school.

Some lawmakers think using lottery money for school construction would be just as specific and identifiable.

By using the money for construction bonds, said House Democratic leader Buzz Ritchie of Pensacola, "We can meet the test of telling voters where their dollars are going."

Ritchie added that his caucus is divided over the issue.

_ Times staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.