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Schools ask state to fix crowding

Pasco school officials have asked state legislators to develop a long-term solution to school crowding when they convene in a special legislative session Monday.

But four members of Pasco County's legislative delegation say they don't think it will happen.

School officials also asked legislators to consider raising the gross utility tax, real estate transfer fees and sales taxes to pay for new schools.

The legislators, contacted Thursday and Friday, said that probably won't happen either.

"I don't know that there's anything out there that will solve this thing long-term," said state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "What will come out of the special session is something that will solve it in the short term."

The legislators said the most palatable solution probably will involve lottery money. A plan put forth by House Speaker Daniel Webster relies on issuing bonds backed by lottery dollars, as well as allocating an additional $200-million for school renovations.

"We're getting all sorts of calls and letters _ because you guys are telling people to call your legislator _ from people saying, "Build new schools but don't raise my taxes to do it,' " said state Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa.

Grant added that he didn't think the state should swoop in and save the day, because school crowding is often exacerbated by school districts' poor planning.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, said he supports the plan proposed by Senate President Toni Jennings, which would have the state contributing $220-million, which could turn into $2.34-billion if districts borrow against that money for 20 years.

"We'll find some additional revenues for schools, but we'll also make sure there's legislation in place to guarantee the money is spent wisely," he said.

Raising the utility or real estate tax isn't an option, Republican legislators said. Fasano said those measures would hurt the economy.

Both Fasano and Latvala said it is unlikely legislators will consider giving school boards the authority to raise the sales tax without a public referendum.

State Rep. Debra Prewitt, D-New Port Richey, said she wanted to find a permanent solution to the problem. Whether that happens will depend largely on how flexible Republicans are with their plans, she said.

"Basically it's a money issue," Prewitt said. "I don't want to count anything out. Every option needs to be discussed."

State Rep. Carl Littlefield, R-Dade City, said he wants to get schools a quick, one-time infusion of new money to tide them over. The money will probably come from the state lottery, he said. Once that is done, it will be up to local school boards to solve the problem over the long term.

"The state has never been involved in building schools before," Littlefield said. "The truth is any school board can raise taxes with a referendum vote. The long-range solution must come from the local school boards."