Senate hikes schools cutsby Dara Kam | March 21st, 2011
From The Orlando Sentinel’s Aaron Deslatte:
TALLAHASSEE — Last week, Senate PreK-12 Education Budget Chairman David Simmons said the chamber’s classroom spending plan was essentially break-even for school districts.
That is, per-pupil student funding wouldn’t see much of a cut, at all.
But on Monday, Simmons reported back to his committee with fresh marching orders from Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, and the new budget math adds up to a $6.5 percent cut for classrooms, equal to about $1 billion.
That’s much closer to the 10 percent cut recommended by Gov. Rick Scott last month.
Actually, the Senate’s education budget proposal released Monday now assumes that the state and school districts will stop financing all of teachers’ pension contributions. In past years, that state and local contribution to the Florida Retirement System for teachers’ pensions was one piece of the education formula and showed up in how the state calculated that it was paying $6,811 per-student.
But with the assumption teachers will be forced to take some type of payroll deduction for retirement, some $739 million has been removed from the Senate’s school-aid formula — and the per-pupil amount is cut to $6,364 in the Senate proposal.
The move caught the eye of several senators on the PreK-12 Education Appropriations Committee Monday, who will be asked to pass a formal education budget out on Thursday.
“I’m very perplexed by this number,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring, the Margate Democrat working on the pension bill.
Ring suggested the total $739 million removed from the formula sounded higher than the level of contribution senators would like to see teachers start paying. The Senate has eyed a contribution rate for public employees of around 2 percent, while Scott has pushed for 5 percent.
‘To walk in and see this, it’s eye opening,” Ring said.
Ring called it an “elephant in the room” and said he’s be hard-pressed to vote for an education budget on Thursday ”that contains that type of FRS contribution.”
Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, said he was worried how school districts would “spin” the number, since it appears on paper to be less money going to education when it’s really not.
“What we all want to avoid is the bumper sticker that says ‘You’ve balanced your budget on the backs of teachers,’” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice.
Simmons said he literally had been given the numbers half an hour before his committee meeting started, and he didn’t want to speculate on how firm they were or whether they meant Senate leadership was banking on a 5 percent payroll deduction for public employees.
“Remember what we’re doing here. It’s not going to effect the operating expenses of districts,” Simmons said. “Are we talking about effecting the income of employees? Absolutely. But it’s important to remember haw this fits within the formula.”
The Senate education plan also contemplates raising $273 million fewer school dollars through local property taxes, a reflection of the declining real estate values.