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Crowded schools? Say no to growth, Bush says

He wants cities and counties to make sure they have enough classrooms before approving new developments.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- With no clear consensus on a rewrite of Florida's growth laws, Gov. Jeb Bush on Friday outlined a narrow approach he hopes will help local communities find a way to pay for new schools.

His priorities for this year's Legislature are well short of the retooling of growth management laws suggested by his task force less than a month ago. In fact, he wants to name yet another commission to come back with more ideas next year.

In the meantime, he wants to make sure cities and counties tie their approval of new developments to the availability of schools to handle the new students. In areas where schools are overcrowded, Bush said, local governments should say no to more development.

"You're not going to be allowed to approve it unless you have those funding sources for the schools," Bush said.

Bush stopped short of saying how, exactly, communities will be expected to pay for more classroom space.

In the past, the state has encouraged local communities to link schools and new development but has never required it. Bush said he now wants the state to require each Florida community to write a mandatory new element in its local comprehensive plan, linking schools to development approvals.

Bush also proposed a new, nine-member growth-management commission that would meet during the next year. The new commission would have to come up with a formula that local governments could use to gauge the true costs of new developments -- a method called "true cost accounting."

Then, Bush wants to try out the new approach as a pilot project in six communities. The communities haven't been named.

Bush said he wants to "turn the growth management process upside down." But both "true-cost accounting" and linking local planning and school construction have been discussed in Florida before.

Bush announced his priorities -- which must be approved by the Florida Legislature -- at a news conference at the Capitol on Friday.

As this year's legislative session finished its first week, other growth-management proposals were emerging. It's likely that lawmakers will try to pass more than what Bush is proposing, including changes to the state's Development of Regional Impact reviews, and new policies that would benefit the owners of rural lands.

But the key issue will be schools, and how to pay for more classroom space.

"We do have a deficit in our infrastructure, and the first place we need to address that is in the schools," Bush said. "For the last 15 years, we've been playing catch-up."

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Board Association, said he welcomes Bush's interest in linking schools and growth.

"Sometimes we create growth by where we build a school, and sometimes we have to respond to growth based on where the county or city lets development occur," Blanton said.

In the past, he said, communities have had a tough time getting voters to approve referendums to raise a penny sales tax to pay for school construction.

"We have a lot of people in Florida who have no allegiance to their local school system. They went to schools elsewhere. They'll say: Why should I help this school system? I don't have children in it."

Blanton proposed that the Legislature give local school boards new authority to enact a penny sales tax, without having to hold a referendum. The current state sales tax is 6 percent, with local communities given the authority to increase it.

Bush also plans to pull back state oversight of many local planning decisions by convening his agency heads to determine a set of "compelling state interests," like transportation and natural resource protection. If a local planning decision doesn't affect the state's interests, the state would back off.

That approach has drawn criticism from people all over the state, who say bad decisions by local governments have led to Florida's out-of-control sprawl and blight.

But Bush said he wants to cut down on bureaucracy by tightening the state's priorities. He said local governments are more sophisticated than they were in 1985, when the landmark Growth Management Act made state government Florida's top development cop.

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