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Legislature

Deal means even more drastic cuts

A "go-along Senate" is bad news to many of those hoping to avoid the deepest cuts proposed by Florida's House.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 4, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - After failing to pass a budget in the session that ended Friday, the Florida Legislature may have better luck when it tries again in a special session starting May 12.

But for schools, universities, courthouses and the arts, things will just go from bad to worse.

As the regular session dissolved Friday without agreement on a budget or several other major issues, Senate President Jim King said he would abandon his efforts to overcome the House's antitax rhetoric and raise more revenue.

While that might make it easier to agree on a budget, it likely will make it even harder on educators, judges and others hoping for a compromise that would lessen the size of the cuts they will have to make.

"We're bleeding all over the place," said Jane Gallucci, a member of the Pinellas County School Board, which tentatively has slashed $24-million from next year's budget, including 23 assistant principals, based on a rosier but now defunct Senate budget proposal.

Pinellas and other school systems will be looking for more cuts now that King has agreed to the $52.2-billion bottom line the House has insisted on all along.

"We've made our stand. People understand where we are," said King, R-Jacksonville. "We are not about the business of becoming obstructionists. We're going to be the go-along-to-get-along Senate."

That's a victory for House Speaker Johnnie Byrd.

"You never compromise your principles," said Byrd, R-Plant City. "Raising tax dollars on the backs of working families is not the answer."

In that spirit, the House provided no money for pay raises for teachers or state workers, but imposed a college tuition increase of up to 12.5 percent. The House included no money for judges, reduced court support personnel and doubled caseloads of juvenile probation officers. Established programs for affordable housing and cultural affairs would disappear under the House spending plan.

Senate proposals also slashed those programs, but the cuts were not as deep, the tuition increase was not as high, and the separate trust funds for housing and the arts would stay intact.

From college students to road builders, from the chief justice of the state Supreme Court to the superintendent of schools in Tampa, seemingly every interest group has faulted state lawmakers for bare-bones budgeting and cost-shifting to make ends meet.

The most immediate effects appear to be in public education:

Florida State University will freeze fall freshman class admissions and plans layoffs of nonteaching personnel.

Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers suspended faculty searches, cut travel and started a waiting list for students who qualify for acceptance.

The University of South Florida's Health Sciences Center and University of North Florida in Jacksonville have imposed hiring freezes.

At the K-12 level, Florida lawmakers do not talk about ambitious or expensive initiatives, other than a House proposal to spend $315-million to retain excellent teachers. Lawmakers are scrounging just to come up with the money to hire enough teachers to comply with the first year of the class-size initiative demanded by voters last fall.

Byrd says the House budget offers $140 more per student than this year, but there's a huge disconnect back home. Byrd's local school superintendent, Hillsborough's Earl Lennard, is warning parents about a wide range of cutbacks to cope with "what may become a fiscal emergency."

Hillsborough is considering cutting the number of kindergarten aides, assistant principals, guidance counselors, psychologists and district-level staff and shortening the school year.

School officials say the House actually offers less money than this year after accounting for enrollment growth, the new class-size law and the rising costs of gasoline, electricity and health insurance.

To Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida's budget is not great, but it's better than most other states. As always, Bush points first to the total spending plan which, in a state with Florida's high rate of growth, increases every year.

"The budget will grow," Bush said. "The K-12 portion of our education system will have a significant increase on a per student basis, and a lot of other things will be cut, so it kind of depends on what portion of the budget you're looking at."

What Bush calls a "significant increase" feels like something else entirely in Pinellas, home of the state's seventh-largest school district.

Pinellas Superintendent Howard Hinesley recalled a meeting a few months ago between Bush and local educators, where the governor told them to reduce class sizes within their current budgets.

"The people of Florida don't want new taxes," Hinesley quoted the governor as saying. "Go back and figure out a way to make this work."

Hinesley and other educators went to work with a mandate to convert as many nonteaching jobs as possible into regular teachers, with schedules keeping them in classes all week.

That means support people such as magnet coordinators, computer technicians and behavior specialists could go back to class, and assistant principals at 23 schools would be reassigned.

Parents, students, principals and teachers underscored the impact of the cuts at a hearing last Wednesday. Kelly Marton, a fifth-grader at Bay Point Elementary, told how layoffs of two magnet school specialists would affect her education.

"We have great classroom teachers that teach the curriculum," the 11-year-old student told the School Board. "But our specialists make those lessons come alive."

All told, Pinellas is cutting nearly 600 jobs, although many of them will go into other district jobs instead of being laid off.

Time is a factor. In the coming weeks, school boards will be finalizing their own budgets for next year, and they need to know how much money they will get from the state.

"To not do a budget in the four or five months that they've had to do it puts real strain on school districts and hospitals and others that need to plan for whatever amount of money they receive from state government," Bush said.

"The sooner they get this budget done, the better," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "Every day they're not giving us a budget handicaps us."

The clock may have another effect. Some educators hope a brief break from the cloistered Capitol will force legislators to listen to their constituents.

"It's hard to get the pulse of what's going on in your district if you spend all these months in Tallahassee," said Steve Swartzel, who lobbies for Pinellas schools. "They are going to go home now and get a much better idea of what people in the district think about these budget cuts. I believe that's going to help us."

-Times staff writers Anita Kumar, Lucy Morgan, Thomas C. Tobin, Alisa Ulferts and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 4, 2003, 02:01:25]


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