Florida schools superintendents tell Gov. Rick Scott they need more money

Herald/Times Tallahassee bureauFebruary 5, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott spent the past week promoting his "historic" proposal to boost education spending.

In a meeting Tuesday with Scott, about 30 school superintendents did all the talking.

In a polite, yet direct way, the school district leaders said they would still be unable to pay for maintenance, new school buses, security upgrades and the technology needed to administer computer-based tests.

Some asked for the authority to hike property taxes to bring in extra revenue.

The budget wasn't their only concern. Saying the state was hurtling toward a "potential debacle," the superintendents implored Scott to slow down the transition to new education standards and standardized tests.

"We want to get this right the first time, not the second or third time," Pinellas County Superintendent Mike Grego said.

The rapid-fire criticism continued for nearly two hours.

Scott, who is running for re-election, rarely spoke during the discussion. At the end, he told the superintendents he had heard their suggestions and would "try to work through them."

Most of his closing remarks were a return to his favorite talking points: taxes and jobs.

"The public is tired of taxes," Scott said. "You know, they are working their tails off. They say, 'You know, no one takes care of me when things aren't good.'"

Before Tuesday's meeting, Scott had been aggressively touting his pitch to increase public school spending by $542 million. He repeatedly mentioned the boost would drive education spending to a record high of $18.84 billion.

The superintendents said they were pleased with the overall recommendation, which would increase per-student funding by $169 to about $6,949.

But they voiced concerns about the $80 million set aside for maintenance in traditional public school districts and $72.1 million reserved for projects in seven small districts.

Some of the most pointed criticism came from superintendents in Republican counties.

St. Johns Superintendent Joe Joyner, whom Scott had considered for lieutenant governor, said the money did not go far enough.

Joyner noted districts had gone years without designated construction and maintenance funding from the state, and capital needs had accumulated over time.

"Eighty million will help, but the issue is huge for us across the state," he said.

The elephant in the room: Scott's proposed budget includes $90.6 million in maintenance funding for privately managed charter schools, which enroll less than 10 percent of public school students in Florida. (New charter schools would have to serve at-risk students to qualify.)

The superintendents also delivered a warning about Florida's education accountability system.

Grego, the Pinellas superintendent, pointed out that state education officials still haven't finalized the new standards or selected the tests that will replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests. The standards and tests will be tied to student retention and teacher pay later this calendar year.

"We need a system that has an element of fairness for our teachers," Greco said.

The superintendents urged Scott to support a three-year transition to the new benchmarks and tests, as well as a one-year suspension of the school grading system.

"Just slow down," Lee County Superintendent Nancy Graham said. "We want this to be sustainable."

After the meeting, Scott told reporters he would defer to Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on the issue. Stewart has said she opposes suspending school grades, and that the original time table shouldn't cause any problems.

Later in the day, former state Sen. Nan Rich, a Democratic candidate for governor, used the opportunity to attack Scott's education record.

"Superintendents are right!" Rich tweeted. "That's why we need a governor who supports public (education) ALL the time, not just at election time!"

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