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House, Senate leaders cautious about Scott’s $1.2 billion promise for schools

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott’s pitch Wednesday for $1.2 billion more for public schools didn’t draw resounding support from his fellow Republican leaders in the Legislature.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said they still want to see how Scott finds the extra cash in the state budget, before they said much about its prospects.

“We do have more revenue, but our budget surplus is breathing room,” Weatherford said. “It’s not enough to put your feet up on the couch.”

Gaetz also sounded cautious, as the two leaders follwed Scott at the Associated Press’ annual planning meeting at the state Capitol.

“We’ve come out of the locust years,” Gaetz said, relying on a biblical reference to frame the budget balancing facing lawmakers. “But I’m not sure we’re in the land of milk and honey.”

State economists say the improving economy has yielded an $828.5 million budget surplus — making this year the first since 2007 that lawmakers won’t face a shortfall during this spring’s session. But the extra cash can easily disappear, both Weatherford and Gaetz warned.

Weatherford said he’s eager to hear Scott’s full budget presentation Thursday.

“We’ll see tomorrow how he does that,” the speaker said.

‘Parent trigger’ bill triggers passion, procedural maneuvering

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

A controversial “parent trigger” bill backed by powerful GOP leaders and education reform icon Jeb Bush is headed to the Senate floor for a vote in the final week of the legislative session over the objections of the measure’s critics over the way it is being handled.

The Senate Budget Committee signed off on the bill (SB 1718), already passed by the Florida House, largely along partisan lines with a single Republican – Sen. Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach – joining Democrats in opposition.

Lynn and Democrats on the committee complained that GOP leaders were railroading the bill after Democrats and a cadre of Republicans led by Jack Latvala blocked the it from being yanked from the committee and sped to the Senate floor. Read about the Latvala-Thrasher leadership struggle – leaving its imprint on the final days of the legislative session – here, here and here.

Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St.Augustine, set two hours for the rare Saturday morning meeting to hear the bill. No one objected then, but that was before another measure was added to the agenda, eating up nearly 45 minutes this morning.

After Thrasher ordered a 9:59 “time certain” vote on the bill, the grumbling began.

Sen. Gwen Margolis, a former Senate president, asked that the time be extended to hear from audience members. The “Parent Empowerment” legislation is being pushed in 20 states by the Los Angeles-based “Parent Revolution” organization but is opposed in Florida by a coalition of parent-led groups including the PTA.

Thrasher said that was impossible because Senate rules prevented the meeting from being extended except on the Senate floor.

The irascible Lynn piped up, reminding Thrasher, a former House speaker close to Bush, of a questionable 4-3 committee vote she intended to challenge because she believed the vote came after another “time certain” vote by the Senate Education Committee this week. She did not fight the vote, and Thrasher ruled that it was legit.

This morning’s vote came after heated debate and after less than five minutes of public testimony during which a parent from Gainesville voiced her opposition.

After the votes were cast and he adjourned the meeting, Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, allowed members of the audience to continue the dialogue.

Shirley Ford, a Los Angeles parent and one of the founders of Parent Revolution who still works for the group, told the panel why Florida needs the process, approved in California by voters two years ago.

Lynn didn’t buy it. She pointed out that Florida has a variety of measures to help turn around failing schools, including vouchers that allow students to attend any school their parents choose. And, she said, Florida just last year launched a sweeping education reform that among other things did away with teacher tenure. It’s too early to know what the impact of those changes will have on low-performing schools, she argued.

In addition, the state Board of Education this week approved a new school grading system that will nearly triple the number of failing schools.

“For somebody from California to come here and tell us what we should be doing is a laugh and a half,” Lynn said after the meeting.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich and her caucus will hold a press conference Monday morning before the floor session begins to voice their objections to the proposal, also opposed by the state teachers’ union.

School bus ads traveling through House

Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Yellow school buses could be emblazoned with ads promoting sneakers, power drinks or television shows under a proposal making its way through the Florida legislature.

The House Education Committee gave the thumbs-up to the proposal, already in place in 15 other states, that could raise up to $100 million statewide for cash-strapped school districts struggling to cover transportation costs for students, according to bill co-sponsor Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton.

The proposal (HB 19) would give school boards the ability to contract for ads on school buses but would ban advertisements for pari-mutuel or Internet gambling or political or religious promotions.

Half of the money generated by the ads would have to be spent on transportation costs and 10 percent would go for drivers education classes if the districts offer them.

“Obviously the state of Florida, we’re in a tough spot,” Slosberg told the panel before the 14-3 vote in favor of his measure. “There’s no money. So what do we do? Do we let the kids walk to school? Do we lay off teachers? This is a creative way to raise revenue and not increase our taxes and not increase our fees.”

But critics of the measure questioned whether children, especially kindergartners, already bombarded by advertisements should be subjected to even more propaganda with the tacit endorsement of their school.

Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said the bill gave him an “uneasy feeling” although schools already have advertisements in place on football fields or in gymnasiums.

“It has to do with this concept of endorsement,” Bileca, who voted against the measure, said. “It’s the idea that a trusted source…is saying that this is ok.”

The Florida PTA opposes the measure.

Two advertisements up to two by six feet in size could be posted on the buses, which some opponents said could create a distraction for drivers and endanger students’ safety.

“We’re dealing with children, three, four five years old,” Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami, objected. “That’s an early age to be bombarded with advertisements…I don’t think it’s fair.”

Slosberg, whose daughter died in an automobile accident, bristled at safety concerns.

“My daughter died in a car crash. I’d be the last guy in the world to want to endanger anyone’s life, especially our children, by putting advertising on our buses,” Slosberg said. “If I thought that…I would never have brought this bill forward.”

Scott enlists aid of public school chiefs to get his budget passed

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011 by Dara Kam

After slashing education spending by $1.3 billion earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott is now asking school superintendents to help get his $1 billion budget boost for public schools passed. And he reiterated his vow to veto any budget that “does not significantly increase state funding for education” in a letter to school superintendents sent today.

Scott included the $1 billion education increase in his $66.4 billion election-year budget proposal after hearing from Floridians that they want more spent on schools, he said. Scott also said that education is the cornerstone of his plan to bring more jobs to the state.

“If you support the budget I am proposing, please let your legislators know. Now that I have presented my budget recommendations, it’s their turn to listen, just as I have done. Please join me in advocating for the children of our state and Florida’s economic future,” Scott wrote.

More than 30,000 new students will enroll in Florida public schools, requiring an additional $200 million over current spending, Scott wrote. And school districts are facing a $220 million reduction in ad valorem taxes, meaning lawmakers will have to pump nearly $500 million more into education to break even.

His plan would bring average per-pupil spending in Florida to $6,372, a $142 increase over the current year but still well below the $7,126 high in 2008.

“As I have listened to the challenges described by teachers, parents and administrators during the past few months, all have urged me to increase the state’s commitment to education. That is my plan, and I ask for your help in making that plan a reality for Florida’s students,” Scott wrote.

The governor once again threw down the gauntlet to lawmakers, many of whom have balked at his plan to beef up education spending by squeezing $2 billion out of Medicaid payments to hospitals.

“Every educator, student, parent and business leader should know: I will not sign a budget from the Legislature that does not significantly increase state funding for education,” Scott wrote.

State school spending heads further south

Thursday, April 28th, 2011 by John Kennedy

When the House and Senate approved separate budget proposals earlier this month which slashed public school spending by at least $1 billion, lawmakers said they were intent on boosting those dollars before session’s ends.

But wishes met reality Thursday night when school budget negotiators met for the first time and the bottom-line cut mushroomed to $1.3 billion. Per-student funding would drop an average $540 — to $6,269, a deeper reduction than earlier proposed.

Senate schools budget chief David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said the overall cut includes an $859 million reduction stemming from the demand by lawmakers that 655,000 government workers in the Florida Retirement System, most of whom are teachers, contribute 3 percent of their pay to their pensions.

The $859 million represents a savings for school districts, which formerly paid the entire FRS share. Schools also retain $554.8 million in federal stimulus reserves distributed last fall, said Simmons, who refuted lingering pushback from educators who say it’s unfair to count that cash toward state funding.

“It’s all green money,” Simmons insisted. 

 By his calculus, schools are losing less than 1 percent of funding overall, Simmons said.

Negotiations are slated to renew tomorrow morning.

Scott promises more change to come in Florida schools

Friday, March 25th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott reenacted Friday his signing into law legislation restricting teacher tenure and introducing merit pay — steps fiercely fought by the state’s teachers’ union.

“The big winner here is all our kids,” Scott assured in a brief ceremony at the Capitol, flanked by House and Senate sponsors of the measure, approved last week by the Republican-ruled Legislature.

It’s the first state law enacted by the rookie governor. “Good start, governor,” shouted Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, after Scott put down his pen.

Scott formally signed the legislation Thursday at a Jacksonville school, capping a long political march by Republican leaders. Florida GOP lawmakers have been pushing back against the Florida Education Association for years and got close last year to enacting the merit pay bill – only to have then-Gov. Charlie Crist veto it.

Scott indicated Friday that he’s got plenty more to change in Florida schools.

“We’ve got to get charter schools expanded, we’ve go to give our public schools the opportunity to be run by third parties and be way more innovative,” said Scott — who declined to take questions following the ceremony.

Paging Mr. Zuckerberg: Scott’s first FB townhall rough

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

In a social network experience marked by little socializing but plenty of network snafus, Gov. Rick Scott held his first Facebook townhall Tuesday night answering a few questions from the hundreds pelted at him.

Most of the Internet crowd was rough. The governor was quizzed about his recommended cuts to schools, merit pay for teachers, reducing pensions, and his reluctance to engage the conventional media.

One  Facebook friend from Tampa, Tony Cona, wrote the governor saying, “I’m taking bets right now that in the end you will prove to be the worse thing that ever happened to the state of Florida.”

As he did with a Twitter town hall a few weeks ago, Scott sidestepped his toughest critics. But he did try to defend some of his policies.

While the governor has gotten heat for blocking implementation of a prescription drug database to combat pill mills flourishing in South Florida, Scott on Facebook voiced sympathy.

“This is a significant (problem) for the State. A friend of mine just lost his daughter. We need to focus on the distribution of “narcotics and close down pill mills that are improperly distributing prescriptions,” Scott wrote.

The governor also pushed back in support of his and the Legislature’s support for tying teacher pay to student performance.

“My experience with teachers is they would like to be measured, the measurement need to be fair, and the most effective teachers need to be rewarded with both recognition and better pay,” Scott responded. (more…)

School spending headed in one direction: South

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

House Democrats doing the math on the public school budget proposal unveiled Tuesday by ruling Republicans released a short list of  “lowlights.”

Per-pupil spending would decline $473 next fall — to $6,327; the lowest level since 2005-06, Democrats said. Overall spending on schools also would drop $1.1 billion, under the House plan, advanced by the PreK-12 budget subcommittee.

The House’s almost 7 percent per-student cut emerged  just a day after the Senate unveiled its own proposal which includes a 6.5 percent reduction. With Gov. Rick Scott having earlier recommended a 10 percent cut, the direction classroom spending is headed is becoming pretty clear even in this early stage of budget work.

Lawmakers managed to stave-off deeper school cuts the past three years, with the help of billions of dollars in stimulus cash from Washington. Last year, alone, $2.5 billion poured into the state treasury — money that has now dried up, leaving a gaping hole.

House Republicans countered, saying Pre-K spending still commands the most state cash in an otherwise lousy year.

““The depth of the budget shortfall is tremendous and every area is likely to see cuts,” said Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera,  R-Miami. “The House budget prioritizes education, with K-12 education receiving the greatest percentage of the general revenue allocation.”

House eyeing school cuts less than Scott’s

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The state House weighed in with its first look at public school spending Monday — outlining plans for a 7.7 percent reduction in the state’s current $6,899-per student spending.

That may sound rough — until you consider Republican Gov. Rick Scott proposed a 10 percent per-student cut in his budget proposal last month.

“It’s going to be rough,” said Vern Pickup-Crawford, lobbyist for the Palm Beach County School Board.

But it’s also early. Lawmakers and lobbyists are holding back on the scenary chewing that usually accompanies proposed school cuts — at least until Friday, when economists are expected to update a revenue forecast which already is leaving Florida in at least a $3.6 billion budget hole.

There are few indications that the forecast will improve much. But most close to the budget-writing also say the outlook is not likely to worsen — unless rising fuel costs add a new budgetary caution.

“And you’ve got to remember, transportation costs are a big part of district spending,” Pickup-Crawford added.

NAACP to hold mansion vigil Thursday for teacher pay veto

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 by Dara Kam

The local chapter of the NAACP is holding a prayer vigil at the governor’s mansion Thursday night to encourage Gov. Charlie Crist to veto a controversial teacher pay bill.

Crist has until midnight Friday to act on the bill, and recently said the tremendous opposition to the measure (SB 6) has made a “fairly significant impression” on him.

State Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, is helping organize the vigil, which is slated to begin at 7 p.m. unless Crist takes action on the measure first.

NAACP Tallahassee chapter president Dale Landry said the bill will force teachers to kick poor-performing students out of their classes because their salaries will be tied to how well the children score on standardized tests.

“You’re talking about a person’s livelihood being tied to children” and factors outside the classroom over which teachers have no control, Landry said.

“To me that’s criminal,” he said.

Bleary-eyed House sends sweeping education reforms to governor

Friday, April 9th, 2010 by Dara Kam

After pontificating for nearly 12 hours, the Florida House at 2:30 this morning finalized approval of a sweeping package of public school changes that could eventually reach every student and teacher in the state.

The divided House ultimately sent to Gov. Charlie Crist a quartet of bills that could prove to be the most significant education changes passed out of the state legislature in a decade.

The proposals would change the way teachers’ contracts and raises are negotiated, make class sizes larger, high school graduation tougher and send more state money to private schools.

The chamber finished with the most controversial measure of all – SB 6 – that would tie teacher pay and job security with how well students perform on tests. Angry teachers, parents and students overwhelmed lawmakers with telephone calls and e-mails objecting to the bill. House Speaker Larry Cretul forbade Democrats from reading any of the e-mails during debate on the bill that ran on until 2:30 this morning.

Read the full story here.

Biden coming to Orlando to brag on Florida’s share of education stimulus dough

Monday, August 17th, 2009 by Dara Kam

biden_portrait_146pxVice President Joe Biden will visit an Orlando middle school on Wednesday to tout Florida’s $3.5 billion share of the economic stimulus package for education.

duncan-100Biden will be joined by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. They’re scheduled to appear at Jackson Middle School in Orlando at 10 a.m.

Not all of the money is being spent in schools or on teachers, however.

Florida’s three-year education stimulus cash includes money for school lunch equipment, homeless education, independent living programs and services for older blind individuals.

Perhaps the White House duo will receive a warmer welcome than Congressional members touting the president’s health care package at raucous town hall meetings throughout the country.

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