October 23, 2014

Education: Double Whammy

Amy Welch Brill | 1/1/2002
With more than $300 million in cuts on the way for the state's K-12 education budget, superintendents have their work cut out for them this year. With six months remaining in the schools' fiscal year, Hillsborough County's Superintendent Earl Lennard recommended $42 million in cuts and was slammed by parents and teachers for proposing to slash summer school and after-school programs. Lennard says a double whammy is hitting districts: Less money is coming from the state, and costs are increasing. "These cuts are only for half the year," says Rep. Sara Romeo, a Democrat from Tampa. "Half the money has already been spent."

A proposed amendment to the state constitution requiring school systems to reduce class size could further complicate superintendents' jobs. The Florida Supreme Court is reviewing the amendment, which will likely be on the ballot in November. It would require a maximum of 18 students in a class from kindergarten through third grade, 22 students in grades 4 through 8 and 25 students in high school. If it passes, school districts will need more money to hire teachers and build schools. Where would the money come from? "The Legislature is going to have to make that decision," says Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Pembroke Pines, who helped draft the amendment.

One bright spot: The Legislature approved $68 million for school districts to use on renovations, repairs and maintenance projects -- part of Gov. Jeb Bush's efforts to create construction jobs.

Meanwhile, the statewide shortage of teachers is expected to reach at least 12,400 this year, and lawmakers have cut $43.8 million in funds for teacher training, teacher recruitment and retention, school books, busing, technology and teacher programs that allot money for classroom materials.

Bonus Plan
Secretary of Education Jim Horne and the state's other seven members of the Board of Education approved changes in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which determines what grades schools receive and, in part, how much money they get from the state. The lowest-scoring students will get bonus points if they improve their scores, and educators will track students' performance on the reading test from year to year. Until now, only fourth-graders took the reading test, and their scores weren't compared against their own previous performance, but rather against those of the previous year's fourth-graders. Horne says the changes will provide a clearer picture of students' progress and educators' performance. "Florida students have a history of rising to the challenges set before them," he says. "Throughout the state, there are examples of schools where students, teachers, principals and parents continue to improve each time the bar is raised."

Trends

Security Concerns: Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Department of Education partnered with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents to trade information weekly on security issues in schools.

Person to Watch: Maureen Dinnen, a teacher for 34 years in south Florida and the president of the Florida Education Association, the top lobbyist group for teachers, will push for smaller class sizes; cuts in administrative staff could help pay for the extra costs, she says. Dinnen says she'll try to make sure the budget shortfall "cuts the fat, not the bone" of education.

Well-positioned: Despite budget cuts, Florida State University enjoys unprecedented support in the Legislature, and its new board of trustees has some political muscle of its own: Former Speaker of the House John Thrasher, the Jacksonville Republican who helped secure a medical school for the university two years ago, is board chairman. FSU President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte's newly created board will give the university something he's wanted for some time -- more flexibility to raise fees.

Vital Statistics: $108.8 million has been cut from state universities; $33.6 million from community colleges; and $52.5 million from workforce development programs.

Tags: Housing/Construction

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