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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.

Scott to propose a $1.2 billion boost for schools

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday that he is proposing a $1.2 billion increase for Florida’s public schools, a boost that would hike per-pupil spending by about $400.

Scott’s proposal will be unveiled Thursday as part of his 2013-14 budget recommendation to the Legislature. More policy details also will be revealed then, showing more about how Scott found the cash for schools in a year that marks his first where he’s not staring at a budget shortfall.

“My top two priorities are jobs and education, and they are directly connected,” Scott said at the Associated Press’ annual planning meeting at the Florida Capitol.

Education under Scott has rollercoastered the past two years. Within months of his swearing in, Scott signed a budget that slashed public school spending by $1.3 billion — but last year he approved a $1 billion increase.

Scott said he is “doubling down” on the schools investment this year. His overall schools plan will include $480 million that will allow for $2,500 pay raises for Florida teachers and covers the 26,746 additional students who will fill Florida’s classrooms next
year at a cost of $172.9 million.

Scott’s proposal also would outstrip the $70-per-student increase sought by the state’s Board of Education. Scott said his per-pupil funding level will reach $6,800 — edging closer to the state’s record, $7,126 reached during the pre-recession 2006-07 school year.

“Investing in our teachers and our education system is our key to economic growth,” Scott said.

Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, also speaking at the AP session, said he would welcome the boost for schools. But he mocked Scott for having an “epiphany” on education that was driven largely by concern over his re-election campaign next year.

Smith said Scott’s action showed he was effectively saying, “I was wrong to starve education and starve government so much.”

Scott said he wants more cash for teacher training

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott continued his new-found focus on education Tuesday, announcing that he would seek $2 million from next year’s Legislature to finance a teacher training program.

The effort, which he said evolved from a weeklong “listening tour” he completed last month, would be a matching grant program designed to attract additional dollars from private companies, educational foundations and local school districts.

The Scott administration said that including the matching funds, the goal is to have as much as $6 million available for continuing teacher education.

“We’re acknowledging the importance of our teachers in this state,” Scott told reporters. “All of us know that in our childhood, teachers were the ones who helped us get ahead.”

Scott said the value of good teachers should be an easy sell to legislators and potential matching grant givers.

 ”They’re teaching and training the future of our state,” Scott said of those working in Florida’s school districts.

A spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said it was too early to react to the Republican governor’s idea, which at this point includes few specifics.

“We have to see what it includes, whether its aimed at some predetermined outcomes,” said Mark Pudlow of FEA. “With anything like this, the devil is in the details.”

Scott spoke Tuesday alongside his Governor’s Office desk, atop sits a small chalkboard which touts, “Over $1 billion in NEW education funding.” The motto represents the amount he and the Legislature increased public school dollars this fall.

Unmentioned, however, is the $1.3 billion cut in school funding that he signed into law last year. Also not addressed is a lawsuit now before the Florida Supreme Court challenging Scott and the Legislature for ordering public employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to belong to the Florida Retirement System.

School district employees are the bulk of those in the FRS.

Scott, though, has lately gone out of his way to make peace with the education system.

Along with new training dollars, Scott is awaiting a report back this month from a panel of seven school superintendents charged with ferreting out red tape that inhibits classroom teachers. Scott also has echoed the frustration of many parents and educators by criticizing Florida’s dependence on testing as a means of evaluating students, instructors and schools.

Scott last month invited FEA leaders to the Governor’s Mansion for the first time since he took office in January 2011.. He emerged promising to at least maintain current school spending next year. He later suggested the funding level could be increased.


Teachers’ union, state in skirmish over merit pay bill

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012 by John Kennedy

A preliminary round in a larger fight over legislation that rewrote how teachers are paid and retained across Florida was waged Wednesday — with the state’s largest teachers’ union seeking to block a proposed Education Department rule  on evaluating educators.

The Florida Education Association argued before Administrative Law Judge John Vanlaningham that the state agency has exceeded its authority with how it wants school districts to evaluate teachers for merit pay.

In the complaint, the FEA and two teachers, Karen Peek and Beth Weatherstone, say the proposed “unlawfully sets a few DOE bureaucrats up to interpret, interpolate, and extrapolate the meaning of the extensive jargon it includes.”

State education officials defend the proposal as “not arbitrary or capricious.” They also say the proposed rule is written in the common language of the education community. It does not violate the statute created by the 2011 legislation, SB 736, they add.

The measure eliminating longtern contracts for new hires and linking teacher salaries to student performance was the first bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

The governor, who had been opposed by the FEA in his 2010 campaign against Democrat Alex Sink, said the new law would help improve student and teacher performance, and help create jobs by making Florida more attractive to businesses.

Democrats condemned the legislation for tying teachers’ pay increases to how students do on standardized tests.

They warned it will require county school boards to divert dwindling school dollars to more testing in elective fields where such tests often are not currently administered.

Along with challenging the proposed rule for evaluating teachers, the FEA last September sued to have the new law thrown out as an unconstitutional restriction on the union’s right to collective bargaining.

The case possibly could go to trial this summer before Leon County Circuit Judge James Shelfer.


Awake the State back with rallies against “anti-middle class” Legislature

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Calling the recently ended Legislature the “most anti-middle class” in state history, ‘Awake the State’ organizers have lined up rallies in two-dozen cities later this afternoon.

Similar demonstrations were held when the Legislature opened in March.

 But now that lawmakers have OK’d 3 percent pay cuts for teachers, law enforcement and other government workers in the Florida Retirement System, eliminated teacher tenure, and toughened abortion and elections laws, some organizers said the crowd opposing Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-ruled Legislature is getting more diverse.

“I’ve done a lot of organizing, but I’ve never had police officers on my side until now,” said Stephanie Porta, from Orlando, an activist with Organize Now, a social justice group. “Rick Scott has been our Number 1 recruiter.”

The Palm Beach County rally is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the South County Civic Center on Jog Road, west of Delray Beach.

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.

Senate pension plan exposes GOP rift

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

With the House and Senate poised to approve state budget proposals next week, $3.3 billion separates the two sides — along with a smattering of ideology.

Some Senate Republicans are wary of efforts to extract $1.1 billion of the state’s budget shortfall from teachers, police, firefighters and other government workers in the Florida Retirement System.

Viera Republican Sen. Thad Altman went so far as to call budget chief J.D. Alexander’s plan, which pivots on 3 percent pay contributions by FRS enrollees, a “huge, huge mistake.”

The House pulls $710 million from government workers in its pension proposal. But the Senate’s budget proposal still spends way more than the House.

If senators want to ease back from public employee cash, there’s not many more couch cushions or cookie jars for lawmakers to find money. But watch for some senators to float some alternatives – more cuts, and maybe even some fee and fine-hikes – in the coming week.

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.

House OK’s barring union deductions

Friday, March 25th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Following the latest firefight between Democrats and Republicans, the GOP-dominated House OK’d legislation Friday that would bar state and local governments from collecting payroll deductions for union dues.

Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, in line to become House speaker in three years, if Republicans hold the majority, sponsored the measure (CS/HB 1021), which he said would keep the state out of “partisan politics.”

“There are other ways for unions to collect their dues that don’t involve state resources,” Dorworth said. On the Senate side, a former Florida Republican Party, Sen. John Thrasher, is sponsoring the measure.

The House approved the measure in a mostly party-line, 73-40 vote. The Senate bill (CS/SB 830) has at least one more committee stop before facing a full vote.

“Do not put lipstick on this elephant,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, adding the measure, “is about silencing the voices of working men and women.”

The measure also allows public employee union members to demand a refund of dollars spent on any union political activity with which they didn’t agree.

Thrasher, who last year guided the state’s GOP to campaign victories that tightened the party’s grip on power in Florida, has said the measure is designed to “empower unions” by making them collect their dues rather than the state. Automatic payroll deductions for union dues has been a common practice by state and local governments, including school boards, for decades.

Union representatives have said it is part of a national effort aimed at scuttling the political influence of teachers, police, firefighters and public employees’ organizations, which campaigned for Democrats last fall and are leading demonstrations against Republican policies this spring.

Unions, including the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Florida Education Association, poured millions of dollars into Democratic campaigns last fall.

Unlike Wisconsin and Ohio, where state capitals have been engulfed in opposition to efforts aimed at ending collective bargaining, union membership in Florida is voluntary.

The Florida Constitution shields workers from being forced to join a union. The constitution, though, also guarantees workers’ right to collective bargaining, a provision Republican Gov. Rick Scott last month said he would like to see repealed.

Teacher pay bill set for House vote

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Outnumbered House Democrats sought to punch holes Tuesday in a sweeping plan pushed by ruling Republicans, which eliminates public school tenure and ties teacher pay to student performance.

With the House set to vote today on the measure already approved by the Senate, Democrats grilled House sponsor Erik Fresen, R-Miami, about the legislation (SB 736), which critics say is designed to punish a state’s teachers union that historically has poured millions of dollars into Democratic campaigns.

Fresen defended the measure, downplaying the politics and saying it will assure that Florida rewards the best teachers by giving them incentives to help students achieve.

“There’s nothing in this bill that micromanages how teaching is done,” said Fresen, chairman of the K-20 Competitiveness subcommittee. “It simply deals with contracts, evaluations and salary schedules.”

Senate OK’s merit pay for teachers

Thursday, March 10th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The Florida Senate approved legislation Thursday that would end tenure and tie teacher pay to student performance — the latest round in a long clash between Republican lawmakers and the state teachers union.

The 26-12 vote split on party lines, with Democrats opposed.

 Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, was the lone Democrat to crossover and support the measure; Republican Sens. Dennis Jones of Seminole and Paula Dockery of Lakeland joined Democratic opponents.

The measure (CS/SB 736) is similar to legislation that convulsed Florida last spring, before then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it following demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns by the Florida Education Association.

 Crist broke with the Republican Party following his veto; and the FEA endorsed Democrat Alex Sink over the GOP’s Rick Scott in last fall’s governor’s race.

Scott campaigned in favor of the legislation.

“This bill ought to be a teacher’s dream – to be paid for a student’s success,” said Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, sponsor of the bill.

Scott says pension contribution phase-in a no-go

Monday, February 14th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott rejected some GOP lawmakers proposal to phase-in a revamp of the state’s pension system.

Scott’s proposed having state workers kick in 5 percent of their salaries to their pension plans, splitting the 10 percent the state now pays for. That would amount to a 5 percent salary cut for the state’s public school employees, who make up nearly half of the Florida Retirement System.

Senate Education Appropriations Committee Chairman David Simmons said he wants to see the pension reform eased in over more than one year so that beginning teachers won’t get a pay cut while the state’s still struggling to come out of a recession.

Scott says nope.

“It’s only fair. The private sector, they fund their retirement benefits so the public sector ought to be doing the same thing,” Scott said. Asked if he was willing to negotiate on the phase-in, Scott’s response was terse: “No.”

Senate rules chairman urges Crist to veto ‘unconstitutional mess’ teacher pay bill

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Sen. Alex Villalobos, the Republican Rules Committee chairman, joined a slew of Democratic lawmakers urging Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the contentious teacher pay bill.

But Villalobos used a different tack to persuade the governor, who has until midnight Friday to act on the measure (SB 6): it’s a “constitutional mess.”

Villalobos argued in a letter to Crist sent Tuesday that the bill that virtually eliminates job security for teachers and bases their salary increases on how well their students perform on standardized tests poses a host of potential constitutional problems.


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.

Crist not getting much pressure from Speaker Cretul on teacher bill

Friday, April 9th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist said he’s being leaned on more heavily about the sweeping teacher pay reforms now on his desk or veto than on any other issue since he took office three years ago.

But caught in the hallway on his way out of the Capitol this afternoon, House Speaker Larry Cretul didn’t have much to say about the measure (SB 6).

When asked what he would tell the governor to try to convince him to sign it into law, Cretul said simply: “It’s a good bill.”

That’s it?

“Yes it is. Sixty-six people thought it was a good bill,” Cretul said.

Oops. Democratic members nearby corrected the leader. The final vote was 64-55.

“Well, I’m working it,” Cretul said.

Maybe the Ocala Republican was more tired than taciturn.

Cretul was at the podium through much of the eight-hour debate on the measure that dragged on until just before 2:30 a.m. this morning.

‘Sucker-punch to the gut’ of teachers or visionary reform? Crist has seven days to pick a side on teacher tenure

Friday, April 9th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist has a week to decide if the controversial teacher merit pay bill is a “sucker-punch to the gut of the teaching profession” or a visionary reform now that SB 6 has reached his desk.

The “teacher tenure” bill poses a conundrum for the U.S. Senate candidate framed in the old Pete Seeger union song, Which Side Are You On?

The self-described “People’s Governor” is facing mounting pressure from fellow Republicans to sign SB 6 into law and from Democrats demanding that he kill the bill.

Crist originally said he thought the merit-pay proposal was a good idea. But after tens of thousands of teachers, parents and students inundated lawmakers’ offices and his own with phone calls and e-mails blasting the plan, his enthusiasm may be waning.

“The more you listen, the more you learn,” Crist told reporters Thursday morning. “There are things I like and things that give me some concern,” in the bill. “I’m listening to the people of Florida — my boss.”

After the House passed the bill at 2:30 this morning, Speaker Larry Cretul urged the governor to keep his word.

“I believe we have passed legislation this morning that is important,” Cretul, R-Ocala, said. “It is legislation I believe the governor should want to sign. I take him at his word that he will.”

But even before the measure reached Crist’s desk shortly after noon today, Democrats ramped up demands that Crist to put his red pen to use.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat running to replace Crist, called on the governor to “stand with the people of Florida against this attempt by Tallahassee politicians to take control away from our local schools.”

Her campaign this morning launched an online petition for Floridians to sign to request the veto.

Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson said in a statement “our governor needs to stand his ground” and veto the bill Lawson called a “sucker-punch to the gut of the teaching profession.”

Read the full story here.

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.

Angry teachers clog House Speaker phone lines

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 by Dara Kam

So many angry teachers called House Speaker Larry Cretul’s office late last week his staff had to add four additional telephone lines and four workers to field the complaints, Cretul spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin said.

The Speaker’s office received more than 5,500 phone calls on Thursday and Friday about SB 6, the measure approved by the Senate last week that would revamp teacher salaries and job security by basing educators’ pay on how well their students perform on standardized tests.

Most of the calls objected to the proposal, Chamberlin said.

“It’s hard to generalize, but many people did not seem to know what the bill does (they thought it would reduce current teacher pay—it won’t) (they thought it would affect current teacher retirement and benefits—it won’t, etc.) and many thought we were taking a poll (which we were not.) It is certainly possible that some people didn’t get through or got voice mail—considering the volume,” Chamberlin said in an e-mail.

McCollum blames teachers for Fla losing out on federal education funds

Monday, March 29th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill McCollum blamed the teachers’ union for Florida’s failure to win out on the first round of federal “Race to the Top” education funds.

The Florida Education Association, that opposed the stimulus funds, is “now responsible for the loss of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for Sunshine State students, teachers and schools,” McCollum campaign manager Matt Williams said in a press release.

“Today’s announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that Florida was not selected as a first round winner of the Race to the Top competition is a disappointing reminder the unions will continue to put the interests of bureaucracy over the best interests of Florida’s children,” Williams accuses.

Sen. John Thrasher, who also serves as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, joined in the teacher-bashing chorus although Gov. Charlie Crist said he remained hopeful that the state could ultimately win some of the $4 billion in federal funds.

Critics accuse lawmakers of hiding behind bad economy to bust up unions

Friday, March 26th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Hundreds of thousands of Florida workers – including teachers and cops – say they are under assault by lawmakers using the state’s flopping finances as a way to bust up the unions.

Measures that would cut salaries, do away with teacher tenure and impose pension reductions are speeding through the legislature this session.

“The legislature’s taking advantage of the bad economy to force their opinions of anti-unionism down the throats of the rest of the people. If they had their way, we’d be working weekends, and there would be 13-year-olds on the production lines,” said Paul Brewer, a Department of Transportation printer who is head of his local union comprised mainly of blue-collar workers in Tallahassee.

Read the full story here.

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