Scott school funding effort could require juggling
By Jim Saunders and Margie Menzel
The News Service of Florida
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, FL — After a weeklong education tour, Gov. Rick Scott put down a marker Friday night: He wants to avoid funding cuts for public schools next year — and would like to boost spending, if possible.
But while Scott’s stance might turn out to be popular with parents and teachers, he will have to set aside money for education in an overall state budget that is projected to barely break even.
What’s more, Scott will have to come to agreement with some fellow Republicans who say they are just as focused — if not more — on making sure the state’s education money is well spent.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who also is chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said Monday that schools need more money for such things as upgrading technology and covering rising costs of day-to-day expenses such as fuel.
“I’m very encouraged that the governor sees the need for at least holding the line and preferably returning more funding to public education,” said Montford, a former Leon County superintendent and principal.
But Montford also acknowledged that the state likely will have little cushion in its fiscal 2013-14 budget. An analysis released this month showed the state should have enough money to cover expected spending next year — with about $71.3 million to spare.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult,” he said. “The best-case scenario doesn’t give the state much breathing room.”
Scott offered his position on school funding after a dinner Friday night with leaders of the Florida Education Association teachers union and after a series of gatherings earlier in the week at schools across the state. But even in making the position public, he pointed to the tension between paying for schools and facing increased tabs for programs such as Medicaid.
“I went through and talked about how my goal was to maintain the state funding and hopefully increase it,” Scott said. “It’s really tied to two things: It’s tied to what happens with Medicaid – historically, Medicaid has been growing at three-and-a-half times the general-revenue growth of the state…and also how fast our economy grows.”
Scott and lawmakers increased public-education spending by about $1 billion this fiscal year, though critics said the money did not make up for cuts in recent years as the state grappled with a troubled economy. As lawmakers put together the 2013-14 budget, public schools also could face competition from other programs that have sustained past cuts — and from possible efforts to cut taxes.
Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, pointed to the increase in this year’s budget as a sign of support for public schools.
“Education was a priority for the Legislature this past session and as a result, we increased its share of funding by $1 billion,” he said in a prepared statement Monday. “We will continue to make education a priority.”
But part of the debate about the education budget also likely will center on the effectiveness of spending. Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who earlier served as Okaloosa County schools superintendent and as a school board member, said he will be “more interested in the how than the how much.”
“As a former superintendent of schools and a former school board member, I’ve always been more concerned with how education dollars are spent than marginal increases or decreases in spending,” Gaetz said Monday.
Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican and former Sarasota County School Board member, said it is good news that Scott has made education a priority and said she was happy to see him travel across the state to talk with “actual troops in the field.” But like Gaetz, she said part of the equation is how money is spent.
“Any new money is good,” Detert said. “But what’s it going to go for?”
Many Democratic lawmakers, the FEA and left-leaning interest groups have long complained about how the state’s Republican leadership has dealt with education funding and other issues, such as school vouchers.
Even with Scott’s tour and support for education funding, that likely will not go away during the 2013 legislative session. A group called Florida Watch Action — which refers to Scott as “Pink Slip Rick” — released a statement and video Monday blasting his tour as a publicity stunt.
“Rick Scott is putting on a dog and pony show for the media, posing with school kids in an effort to boost his dismal approval ratings,” Susannah Randolph, the group’s executive director, said in the statement.
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