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Teachers center may face budget ax

Gov. Bush has proposed that the state eliminate its $275,000 contribution to the training facility.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- After eight years of jumping from place to place, the Florida Center for Teachers finally has a permanent home at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus. A dedication of the new building is scheduled Saturday.

Now the bad news: The center's main budget to train teachers may be wiped out.

At a time when Florida faces massive teacher shortages, Gov. Jeb Bush has recommended eliminating the state's $275,000 contribution to the center. That money covers the cost of putting on the three- to five-day seminars and paying for teachers to attend them.

The Florida Senate's education budget committee has proposed gutting the funding as well.

That would essentially shut down a program designed to reinvigorate and enrich teachers with seminars in Florida history, literature, folklore, social policy and other issues that can be taken back to the classroom.

Under the umbrella of the Florida Humanities Council, the center is the only statewide teacher professional development program in humanities for K-12 teachers.

"I think it's disheartening for teachers, especially good teachers, the teachers who have been in the classroom and who have demonstrated their commitment to the profession," said Susan Lockwood, director of the Florida Center for Teachers.

Liz Hirst, a spokeswoman for Bush, said the governor recommended $36-million in the 2001-02 budget for teacher training, to be overseen by local school districts.

"We're not questioning the value of this training (by the Florida Center for Teachers)," she said. But Bush believes local school districts should be in charge of choosing which training is the most appropriate.

The language in Bush's budget recommendation says teacher training should focus on subject content and teaching methods, assessment and data analysis, and classroom management and school safety.

That's not what the Florida Center for Teachers is all about.

"By and large, we see teachers who have been in the profession for many years . . . and are looking for more than seminars on classroom control or the latest buzzwords," Lockwood said. "They are looking for professional development, something that can stimulate them intellectually."

Some 1,700 teachers have attended weeklong seminars since the center began its programs in 1993; another 1,500 teachers have attended three-day seminars, Lockwood said. The center gets some private donations from education foundations and businesses such as the St. Petersburg Times.

But the bulk of the money for programs comes from state. The seminars have been at held in several places, included Eckerd College and the University of Tampa.

With the help of former state House Speaker Peter Wallace of St. Petersburg, USF got the money to build a permanent home for the center, which leases space in the new building on the St. Petersburg campus.

Education Commissioner Charlie Crist is scheduled to attend the building's dedication on Saturday.

On Thursday, Crist said a cut in a program such as the Florida Center for Teachers "obviously makes me wince, literally."

But the state budget process has just begun, said Crist, a former state senator. He said he's optimistic that by the end of the legislative session in May, "We will fully fund education and I am advocating that."

This budget year is particularly tough, with the state facing deficits in the Medicaid program, and Bush insisting on setting aside an unprecedented amount of reserve funds in case of a downturn in the economy.

Bush also wants to continue a phasing-out of the unpopular intangibles tax on stocks and bonds, and shrink government by cutting state employees and letting the private sector handle some public business.

But education remains Bush's top priority, Hirst said. The governor also recommended a $50-million teacher recruitment program that would give bonuses of at least $1,000 to new teachers.

So far, the Senate's budget committee has not agreed to fund Bush's proposal and is in fact proposing a cut in teacher recruitment and retention funds.

The committee also is proposing a host of other cuts -- in school computers, library materials, and programs that extend the academic year by 30 days and give $100 stipends to teachers for classroom supplies.

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