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$2-billion for schools, but session far from over

Florida would spend at least $2-billion more to build new schools and fix old ones under a tentative compromise reached Wednesday night by state lawmakers.

But, while House and Senate leaders agreed to the amount, they could not agree on how to spend the money. Indeed, Wednesday night ended in frustration as negotiations broke off and lawmakers talked of having to extend their weeklong special session.

"You might want to think about rearranging your travel schedules," said state Rep. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, chairman of the special committee working out differences between the Senate and House. "We may have to ask for an extension of the call (for the session) because we're that far apart."

The $2-billion figure represented a compromise on both sides. The House has been pushing a $1.5-billion plan, while the Senate was seeking $2.6-billion for the state's chronically crowded schools.

Gov. Lawton Chiles, meanwhile, has called the state's classroom shortage a $3.3-billion problem. And it was not clear how _ or whether _ he would accept the legislative compromise. His spokeswoman said only that her boss is not happy with the figures legislators are discussing.

In addition to the grand total, among the issues of apparent agreement Wednesday were:

+ At least $160-million in lottery revenues would be used to borrow money over 20 years, raising as much as $1.9-billion for schools.

+ At least $100-million would go to a special fund to reward districts that build schools economically, and more money would be set aside for loans to districts with severely crowded schools.

+ Small counties that can't raise a lot of money locally for construction would benefit from a fund of $50-million to $100-million.

+ Florida teachers would receive a stipend of $250 to pay for classroom supplies that often come from their own pockets. Total price tag: $31.5-million.

It was the specifics behind these points _ how to give out the money, and how to decide which counties can qualify for loans and grants _ that was giving lawmakers fits late Wednesday.

As negotiations dragged on, House Speaker Daniel Webster and Senate President Toni Jennings quietly discussed options at the back of a meeting room, and gave up hope of a swift deal.

"So much for fast," Jennings said. "But that's okay."

Indeed, Jennings found herself adopting a tone she likely once used in her former career as a schoolteacher, as she presided over a chaotic, confusing scene in the Capitol.

At one point, Jennings announced the senators would take a "timeout."

Even on the points of apparent agreement, there was far from unanimous support.

Some legislators objected to making districts prove they have tried to raise money locally before receiving additional state funds.

Senators also worried that a five-member oversight board proposed by the House to monitor districts' building practices and determine their qualifications for the grants was too much bureaucracy.

And some lawmakers held out hope that the $2-billion compromise could still grow.

"That's a baseline figure," said state Sen. Bill Bankhead, R-Ponte Vedra Beach. "There might be more, if we add in some bells and whistles."

Another sticking point facing legislators is how school districts should count portable classrooms in determining their need for additional classroom space.

The House approved a bill Wednesday that would count portables equal to regular classrooms, unless the portables are substandard or are scheduled for replacement within five years. Those would not count at all.

The Senate's plan is more generous. It would not count any portables that are slated to be replaced in five years, or are more than 20 years old, or have been added to schools that are at 130 percent of their capacity. Others would be counted at 50 percent.

A seemingly unrelated issue that got wrapped up in the negotiations is the University of South Florida's quest to buy a building to use for an Alzheimer's center. Wednesday night, it looked as if legislators would give USF $1.6-million for the purpose. And Florida A&M University, whose leaders said their institution is just as entitled to money as USF, was poised to get an equal amount for a science lab.

Just how nasty some of Wednesday's debate got came through during the House's session on counting portables.

Rep. Jerry Melvin, R-Fort Walton Beach, chided a teacher at Louis Benito Middle School in Tampa for encouraging her students to send him letters about the ills of overcrowding instead of teaching them to write correctly.

"That's where we have a real problem," Melvin said.