1. Archive

$2.7-billion to build schools in Florida

Top lawmakers agreed Thursday on a $2.7-billion plan to build more schools and move children out of portable classrooms.

But Florida's schoolchildren will be middle-age by the time this plan is paid off.

Unwilling to raise taxes, conservative Republicans had to retreat from their usual reluctance to borrow money to solve the state's problems. The cornerstone of the plan is a massive borrowing program that will put Florida in debt for 30 years.

Every year, the state will need about $180-million to make the payments. The money will be taken from lottery dollars that usually go to school operations. And it's a huge chunk _ last year, the lottery sent $412-million to districts' daily operations.

If the plan is approved by legislators today, the final payoff for this loan could amount to more than $5-billion.

"It's a tough thing to do," House Speaker Daniel Webster said Thursday afternoon, when it became clear that a 30-year bond issue would be the answer to Florida's school crowding problems.

The Legislature has been in a special session all week to tackle a problem that has forced districts to use some 22,000 portables to alleviate severe school crowding.

"There are some instances where you do have to borrow money," said state Rep. John Thrasher of Orange Park, designated this week to be the next Republican House speaker. "We do it in our personal lives."

Thursday was a day of frustration and confusion over how much will be spent and how money will be distributed to solve Florida's school crowding problems.

Democrats and Republicans alike complained about lack of details and complex formulas no one understood. Key lawmakers trying to negotiate a compromise had just about given up.

By late Thursday afternoon, some senators were wondering if they should go home and try again for a solution next month, when legislative committee meetings are scheduled.

"If we have to come back here in two weeks, or we have to come back in December, I'm willing to do that to get the job done right," said Senate Democratic leader Ken Jenne.

But by 9 p.m., Webster and Jennings were shaking hands and promising the $2.7-billion compromise would win easy approval in the House and Senate today.

"That sounds like a good deal to me," Jennings said. "We've worked through these issues all summer, all fall and all week. We've found a way to address the needs of Florida's children."

Education Commissioner Frank Brogan was all smiles as well. He said the compromise would ease overcrowding.

"I think they addressed it in an unprecedented way, and that's without raising taxes," he said.

Some Democrats said the plan looked good on the surface but said they had to know more before committing their support. Jenne said he was waiting to read the exact language. A final draft won't be ready until today.

"I think everybody wants it to pass," Jenne said.

Gov. Lawton Chiles' aides also said they were awaiting details but were encouraged by the compromise.

"It sounds promising," said April Herrle, Chiles' spokeswoman.

Chiles had endorsed a recommendation to spend $3.3-billion, a figure proposed by a commission he appointed to reform public schools.

But his budget director, Bob Bradley, said Chiles had to retreat from that figure because it relied on local school boards to raise taxes without getting voter approval. Conservative lawmakers rejected that idea.

But the bond program, with its reliance on lottery dollars, raised concerns for some educators.

Lottery dollars already go to pre-kindergarten programs for poor children, state universities and community colleges, as well as the new Bright Futures college scholarships. What is left over goes to school districts, which normally use the money for daily operations. This year, school districts got $412-million in lottery dollars. That amount will be slashed once the Legislature starts spending $180-million a year to pay off the construction bonds. And there's another drain coming to the lottery funds: The new Bright Futures scholarship program is expected to eventually cost $175-million a year. This year, the program has $75-million.

Lawmakers promise to put more tax dollars into the education budget to make up for the loss, but no one can be sure if that support will continue over the next 30 years.

The compromise reached Thursday also includes:

$400-million for school districts that have done their best to raise local money for new schools. The plan, called an "effort index," has caused the most confusion this week. Lawmakers still don't understand how their districts are supposed to get the money.

$200-million for a "School Infrastructure Trust Fund" that rewards districts that build school frugally.

$50-million for small, rural counties that can't raise enough money from property taxes to build schools.

$31.5-million to give each Florida teacher $250 for classroom supplies they often pay for out of their own pockets.

$1.6-million for the University of South Florida to purchase a building from Tampa General for a new Alzheimer's center, and $1.5-million for Florida A&M University to buy a science lab.

$16.6-million to build a model middle school. It has not been decided where the school would be built, although some say it would go in Ocoee, Webster's hometown.

Agreement highlights

+ Spend 2.7-billion over 5 years on school construction, raised by bonding $180-million a year in lottery proceeds over 30 years.

+ Distribute the money among districts based on current formulas, rather than concentrating on highest need areas.

+ Create programs to encourage districts to raise money locally, and build schools frugally.

+ Give teachers a $250 supplies stipend.

_ Staff writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report.