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Special session: so far, so good

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Feeling public pressure to ease conditions in Florida's crowded schools, lawmakers moved quickly Monday to find solutions.

But they weren't all moving in the same direction. As key House and Senate committees approved plans to fund new schools, deep divisions remained about the size of the problem and how to solve it.

Yet some compromises began to emerge.

Most notably, Gov. Lawton Chiles and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature _ who are the minority party in both the House and Senate _ retreated from their plan to allow school boards to raise taxes for new schools without voter approval.

"That seems to be very, very quiet now," said House Democratic leader Buzz Ritchie of Pensacola. "There was a belief all along that that was something that could not get out of the House."

Lawmakers also agreed to revisit a controversial new law that dictates how the need for new schools is calculated. And they agreed that teachers _ who often must buy basic school supplies out of their own pockets _ should receive some kind of a stipend for materials.

Both chambers are to debate and possibly vote on their separate plans today, setting a pace that could produce a final compromise for the governor's review by Thursday.

"I'm not sure how we're going to do it, but we'll get it done," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Grant, R-Tampa.

The biggest difference is the scope of the problem: Chiles and the Democrats think fixing school crowding will cost $3.3-billion. House Republicans and some GOP senators insist it will cost much less, as low as $1.5-billion.

Then there's how to pay for a solution. The House plan approved in committee Monday is a $1.5-billion solution that relies on borrowing against lottery dollars to raise money for new schools and offers $600-million in loans to districts to meet immediate needs. The Senate plan would send $300-million to school districts, allowing them to raise some $2.3-billion by borrowing against the money.

The first hurdle emerged early: The Senate Education Committee refused to use lottery dollars to back bonds for building new schools. The lottery should enhance education, as was promised to voters who approved the games in 1986, rather than paying for basics, committee members said.

"This is the final step in admitting we're not going to use lottery dollars for enhancement," said Sen. Donald Sullivan, R-Seminole. "We're finally saying that this lottery business was a sham."

The lottery money is the core of the House funding plan, which would shift up to $100-million in lottery revenues to raise money for school construction. And it isn't solely a Republican plan _ Chiles supports using lottery money for that purpose.

In addition, one of House Speaker Daniel Webster's pet proposals, the creation of a special fund to reward districts that build schools frugally, was eliminated by the Senate Education Committee.

The senators voted to use that $50-million to help rural districts that had trouble raising construction dollars locally. The House plan, meanwhile, adds another $200-million to that same fund.

Lawmakers said they would overcome their differences.

"They're not as big as they might appear to be," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. "You do some things for posturing, but I think we're all on the same page about doing something."

Whatever they do, the public is watching closely.

Clad in matching green sweaters, one group from a crowded Hillsborough County elementary school lectured lawmakers on the hazards of portable classrooms and the need to build schools to replace them.

"Our community wants you to know that overcrowding is real," said Isabel Pacheco, president of the PTA at Hunter's Green Elementary, which has 38 portable classrooms and 1,554 students. The school was built for 1,025. "We want you to take action."

The Senate and House committees both agreed to fix controversial legislation passed this year that changed the way Florida counts its portables.

Districts complained the new method, which counted one portable as three-quarters of a classroom, made it appear that they had more space and less need for permanent schools.

Both House and Senate plans agreed that the oldest portables should not be counted at all. But the chambers differ on how to count newer ones. The House plan would count them equal to regular classrooms. The Senate would count them as half.

And, on a day that most discussion focused on building new schools, committees in both chambers agreed to put a little extra money in the classroom.

A $31.5-million House plan would give each teacher a one-time $250 check to buy classroom supplies that many pay for out of their own pockets. A similar Senate plan would give up to $500 to half of the state's teachers. The Senate would distribute checks each year; in the House, they would come out only once.

The idea erupted in a partisan debate in the House, where some said the money should go for construction, rather than throwing crumbs to teachers.

"I think they would rather see their salaries increased," said Rep. Cynthia Chestnut, D-Gainesville. "They would rather see smaller class sizes."

House leaders, however, defended the plan.

"Teachers want us to do something that will enhance their ability to teach in the classroom," said Rep. John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, the incoming House speaker. "This may be a small amount, but it sets the tone in this Legislature to tell our teachers that you are the most important resource."