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School spending increase sought
Gov. Crist says he wants $394 more per student, but his critics question the timing.
By JENNIFER LIBERTO, Times Staff Writer
Published January 18, 2008
Gov. Charlie Crist's proposed $33.5-billion education budget comes as many are becoming fearful the proposed Jan. 29 property tax amendment would hurt schools.
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist wants to increase public school spending by $394 per student, to $7,606, based partly on his assumption that property values will continue to rise and increase tax collections.
Crist unveiled a small piece of his overall budget plan Thursday, touting an increase in educational spending to blunt criticism about school cuts that could occur from the Jan. 29 property tax amendment he's been campaigning for.
But he offered few specifics on how to pay for it. And critics say his timing is a deliberate attempt to shore up support among those fearful the proposed property tax amendment would hurt schools.
"I know a lot of you and a lot of people around the state are concerned about the upcoming vote on Amendment 1 on Jan. 29 and how that might impact education funding, and that's why I'm rolling it out first," said Crist, whose plan includes $138-million to offset cuts from that ballot initiative.
Crist's proposed $33.5-billion education budget also includes $6.5-million more for reading coaches and $120-million more for merit pay for teachers. But he would cut $47-million from a higher education program, preventing new students from getting financial aid to attend private colleges, unless it's one of the three historically black private colleges in Florida.
State law requires the governor to make budget recommendations by Feb. 4, and the Legislature tends to consider his budget as a starting point. The final budget often looks quite different, especially since state economists are predicting an even sharper revenue shortfall, perhaps as big as $2-billion in coming months.
Key revenue estimate
Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, declined to discuss specifics of Crist's proposal, other than to say it would receive "great weight." But he added that the next revenue estimate is pretty important, because "at the end of the day, how much money you have is where the rubber meets the road."
Crist was optimistic Thursday, touting millions more for projects like physical education for middle schoolers and medical programs at three universities.
Numbers show that part of Crist's proposed increase in public school education spending would come from growth on the property tax rolls. Some money would also come from using one-time windfall funds for year-to-year programs.
Such vagueness earned Crist immediate criticism from Democrats, especially because his education spending relies on increases in local property taxes.
"I don't think this is a real budget," House Democratic leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said. "There's nothing I like about it. I think it's a fantasy, and I think it was put out there really just to prop up the Jan. 29 vote."
Crist assured that integral services would be saved.
"There will be some reductions somewhere, there's no question about that, but in terms of direct needs to the people, they will be fully upheld," Crist said.
School superintendents were cautiously hopeful at hearing preliminary reports of Crist's plan for schools.
"I know that's our governor's intention, not to hurt K-12. However, the governor makes a recommendation to the Legislature," said Heather Fiorentino, Pasco superintendent and former Florida House member. "That doesn't mean the Legislature is going to be able to uphold his recommendation."
Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said school officials are aware of the state of the economy, and know they have to do their part while working with the Legislature to fund schools.
"We believe education funding has to remain strong enough to keep our system moving positively, but we all know we have to be frugal."
Higher ed cuts
Universities and community colleges don't fare as well in Crist's budget recommendations, which cut state contributions to state universities by $35.6-million and to community colleges by $9.1-million, compared with current overall funding.
However, overall higher education budgets would be funded at current levels, due to increases in enrollment, according to his proposal.
Crist's proposal also calls for no tuition increase.
State university system officials were guarded Thursday in their response to Crist's budget proposal. Many hadn't had a chance to review it.
"That's the governor's recommended budget, and we know what happens when it gets in the hands of the Legislature," said USF provost Ralph Wilcox. "It tends to come out looking very different."
Times staff writers Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Jeffrey S. Solochek and Letitia Stein contributed to this story.