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More tax dollars aren't the answer to school "crisis'

During the low inflation years from 1991 to 1996, Florida's average high school construction cost skyrocketed by 80 percent. Just last year, new school construction costs across the state ranged from $66 to $180 per square foot. These runaway costs and wildly fluctuating numbers are two of the many symptoms which indicate that our school-facilities "crisis" goes beyond the surface need for more funding and points to a deeper need for a commitment to functional, frugal facilities.

For this reason, any meaningful solution to our school-facilities problem must go beyond the convenient but shortsighted fix of additional tax dollars. It is time that we ask hard questions of school districts that are experiencing major shortfalls in order to find out if they are making wise use of the resources they already have and to determine if a genuine effort has been made at the local level to keep pace with growth and expansion.

The cost of school construction has always been met through a partnership between state and local government. Nationally, the average contribution to local school construction is 10 percent. That means that for every $90 that is raised by the local district, the states provide $10. Florida has already demonstrated a significant commitment to our schools by funding construction at a level that is more than double the national average.

The Florida House of Representatives has developed a plan to address the school facilities issue. Our plan, called "SMART (Soundly-Made, Accountable, Reasonable and Thrifty) Schools," has been carefully crafted to go beyond the scope of temporary relief by providing a comprehensive, long-range solution.

The SMART Schools plan was developed and based on four principles:

Functional, frugal buildings: The plan establishes two major grant funds totaling more than $750-million. These funds are available to districts that build functional, frugal schools and demonstrate an appropriate level of local effort to raise needed funds. These incentives strike at the very heart of our facilities problem by encouraging districts to better utilize tax dollars. It is time that we put away the wasteful spending traditions of the past. (Note: By "functional" and "frugal," we do not mean poor quality or shoddy construction, but rather solid, cost-effective facilities designed for efficiency while avoiding unnecessary architectural slopes, angles or frills.)

Immediate assistance: To ensure that we meet the needs of every district, SMART Schools provides the Classrooms Now loan program. Through this $500-million fund, every district will be able to access immediate resources for construction. The House plan also provides an additional $200-million grant to be distributed to every district for their major repair and renovation needs.

Balanced plan: Our plan serves all districts' high need, low need, high effort, low effort. Districts should not be penalized for handling their need on their own. As a matter of fact, our plan rewards those districts that show they can meet their needs in a frugal and effective manner. There is also a balance struck between the operating and capital side of the budget under our plan.

No new taxes: By setting priorities and working within the framework that our principles provide, our statewide need for additional school facilities can be solved without imposing any new taxes. I am fighting very hard to ensure that voters maintain the right to decide whether or not an additional half-cent sales tax is levied in their district to fund school construction without prior approval. This choice should be left with the people, not handed to the school boards.

SMART Schools is not intended to be an instant, one-sided fix, but rather a continued partnership with local school districts. Our plan calls for an immediate investment of $1.5-billion, but it is clearly a two-way street. Our ultimate success will depend on an effective partnership with each local school district. Working together, I am confident that we can meet the challenge that lies before us.

Daniel Webster, speaker of the House, Tallahassee

Address the classroom crunch

Legislators have an opportunity this week to improve educational facilities statewide. On behalf of the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County, I urge our legislative delegation to act in a positive manner as follows:

Increase state funding by providing an additional $150-million yearly for the next five years from recurring general revenue directly to school districts, based on the PECO (Public Education Capital Outlay) growth formula. Florida's strong economy has boosted general tax collections, providing a revenue dividend for the state. Take advantage of this now. Do so without raiding other educational programs.

Allow local school districts to levy the capital outlay sales surtax of one-half cent or less (already approved by the 1995 Legislature) without a referendum. This option can be conditioned to require an extraordinary vote of the school board, to apply only for a limited time, to mandate public hearings for use of the proceeds and to require a property tax freeze.

Do not count portable classrooms as permanent space. The law that passed last session (HB 2121) allowing this should be changed back. This hocus-pocus attempt to make the problem of educational-facilities funding not look so dire has failed. Pupils, teachers and citizens deserve substantive "bricks-and-mortar" solutions.

Using lottery dollars, which are supposed to provide educational "enhancements," is the wrong way to fund basic construction needs. Instead, remove the many illogical, special interest sales-tax exemptions that plague our state tax system.

Eliminating crowded, low-quality and dangerous classrooms should be a top priority. Legislators appear to have options. They should return from Tallahassee with solutions in hand.

Kathy Castor, president, the League of Women Voters

of Hillsborough County, Tampa

Camouflage the fund-raising

The news lately has been filled with the problem of overcrowded schools and portable buildings being used as classrooms.

A wide variety of solutions have been suggested.

I would like to offer my own solution that is sure to prove successful. Let's have a drive to raise funds under the guise of building another stadium, recreation center or public park. Then, when the money is raised, we'll tell everyone that we decided at the last minute to put our priorities in order and redirect the funds toward education. Problem solved!

Wake up, America!

Len Vivolo, Clearwater

Gambling with the future

I have been reading about the idea of using lottery proceeds to build new schools. I think that is a great idea, and they should be called "Enhancement Schools."

I don't believe the dumbos who buy the lottery tickets would object if some more of the profits were skimmed off for yet another purpose. Their only real concern is trying to beat the zillion to one odds anyhow. Matter of fact, I think there should be at least two more lotteries. The current one could be called "Dumbos' School Enhancement Number One." The next few would follow in sequence. Dumbo Number Two might be used to pay the salaries of the governor and his staff, it might be called "Governor and Friends Enhancement." Number Three lottery might go to pay the Florida legislators. It could be called "Legislators' Enhancement." We might even be the first state to abolish all state taxes and be run strictly on volunteer "Dumbo Contributions."

Great day in the morning, let's all encourage our senators to promote gambling as a way out of all perplexing problems!

Paul Cohen, Clearwater

Crowding isn't conducive to learning

As a future teacher, I find it ironic that the state policymakers are crying over the benchmarks that students need to meet in order to move to the next grade, and in the same breath are blind to the state's major problem

The problem is teaching our students in crowded portables away from the rest of the school. I feel no student will do as well in sub-par conditions, compared to having class in regular classrooms. First, the students feel they are being taught in mobile homes, and are isolated from the rest of the school. I am sure this does wonders for their view on school. I would not let my son or daughter be taught in some makeshift classroom. I am from up north, Pittsburgh to be exact, and I never heard of portables until I came to the University of South Florida. Up north when we have a problem we fix it, not call special meetings to debate the subject to death.

Florida's policymakers are too concerned with themselves, and not the next generation of students. The only time they make a decision is when they are on the verge of losing their lovely jobs, They need to wake up and actually spend a couple of weeks at a school that is overcrowded. They come by for one day, get on camera, and then they are gone, feeling they have accomplished something. I would be willing to bet that no senator's children are in a portable. Furthermore, if they were, the problem would get real consideration.

Sean Farrell, Temple Terrace

Let education go private

Re: Wanted: a real solution, editorial, Oct. 29.

The answer is not to simply throw more of taxpayers' money at the problem, as your editorial writer suggested; that has been tried in the past. The answer is simply to abolish public schools, return money spent on them to taxpayers' pockets and allow private schools to flourish.

The prevailing argument against privatizing schools is that many lower-income parents wouldn't be able to afford to send their children if they had to pay for it out of their own pocket. But paying for it in taxes means having money taken from your pocket by force, whether you have a child enrolled in school or not. You're also paying twice as much to educate your child. According to a pamphlet by George O'Brien, the cost per student in government schools is nearly twice that of a typical private school, yet the results are distinctly inferior.

With private schools, we'll solve virtually every problem involving education known to man for half the money. You as the parent will be a paying customer to schools. Do you think they will tolerate unruly behavior from students, turn out illiterate graduates, conduct classes in a portable classroom or allow unqualified teachers to work at their school if they are competing with other schools for your business? Not very likely, is it?

With private schools catering to the needs and desires of their customers, there will be schools emphasizing prayer and religious values, schools without prayer in their curriculum, schools with athletics, no athletics, and so on. You won't have to beg the school board to stop teaching your child a philosophy that's alien to you, but simply look for another school.

Teachers will also finally see a well-deserved increase in their salaries. Private schools that compete for your business will also compete to attract the best quality teachers. Wouldn't it be great to see teachers paid what they're worth?

The choice is yours: business as usual in the public school system or a privately run school industry that competes to keep quality up and cost down. Which do you prefer?

James Bennett, Safety Harbor

Share your opinions

Letters for publication should be addressed to Letters to the Editor, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. They can be sent by e-mail to letterssptimes.com or by fax to 893-8675.

They should be brief and must include the writer's name, address and phone number. Please include a handwritten signature when possible.

Letters may be edited for clarity, taste and length.

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