State College of Florida gets $8.7 million for new library

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauApril 29, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida legislators Monday doled out nearly $500 million from the Public Education Capital Outlay fund, including $320 million for construction and maintenance projects at state colleges and universities.

A big chunk -- $8.7 million -- was set aside for the State College of Florida Library and learning center. It was the third-largest award to a state college this session.

SCF officials had asked legislators for $17.6 million for a new state-of-the-art library at its Bradenton campus as part of its five-year capital improvement plan. The library, built in 1977, does not support today's technology.

"We are pleased to see that the Legislature has proposed $8.7 million for the Library and Learning Center in 2015, which is about half of the funding required for the project," said Carol Probstfeld, SCF president. "The library has been our No. 1 priority since 2007, and this facility will provide state-of-the-art technology for collaboration, entrepreneurship and creativity for all of our students, including those who take courses on campus as well those who access online course offerings."

State colleges and universities received the bulk of the PECO funds. Seventeen of 28 state colleges took home a total of $92 million for capital improvement projects.

Lawmakers also reached a deal on K-12 education funding Monday to pump more than $100 million into maintenance and construction for traditional public schools statewide.

District leaders celebrated the news. Most school systems have not received money from the Public Education Capital Outlay trust fund since 2011.

"This is a step in the right direction, considering the capital needs of Florida schools," Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. "We hope this is a sign of things to come in future years."

Charter schools, however, were delivered a stinging blow. Despite growing enrollment statewide, they were given a little more than half of the $91 million received last year.

"We have more students, but the pie is smaller," said Larry Williams, a lobbyist for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.

The budget has yet to be finalized, but the PECO plan is unlikely to meet resistance. Gov. Rick Scott has said he also wants to see the dollars shared among districts and charter schools.

PECO has become one of the Legislature's perennial battles.

The fund, generated by a tax on landline telephones and cable TV, provides millions of construction dollars to traditional public schools. But the tax revenues have been slowly drying up -- and charter schools were winning a larger share of the money until this year. The state's 67 school districts received a total of $50 million for maintenance.

Seven small districts -- Glades, Washington, Madison, Levy, Calhoun, Holmes and Dixie -- received $59.7 million for facilities projects.

Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the upper chamber intended to send a message to school districts: "We want to fix the leaky roofs of gymnasiums. We want to make sure our classrooms are in good condition."

"Both the House and the Senate came together to address needs for a lot of counties where there are fiscal challenges, and also to just do some general work in making sure our public schools are well taken care of," Negron said.

Charter schools had asked for at least $100 million from the PECO fund. They pointed out school districts can levy property taxes to support construction and maintenance, while charter schools cannot.

House Budget Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, included the $100 million in his initial budget proposal. But the more conservative Senate position prevailed in budget negotiations.

When asked why the two chambers settled on $50 million, McKeel said other worthwhile projects capital projects were also seeking funding.

"As you tally up those needs that are out there, obviously there is more than there is money available," he said.

The Senate had less of an appetite to grow charter schools than in years past. Earlier in the session, the upper chamber watered down an industry-backed proposal to change the way districts enter into contracts with charter school operators.

Williams, of the charter school consortium, said he and other advocates would pursue additional funding before the session ends Friday.

"This shines a light on the need to find a reliable, recurring source of revenue to fund PECO so there is not a fight," he said.

State lawmakers are considering changes to the PECO fund. State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has been pushing a plan to redirect a portion of the corporate energy tax from general revenue into the PECO fund.

The House has included the language a larger tax cut package (HB 5601). The Senate bill version of the bill (SB 1076) is stalled in committee.

Herald Business Editor Toni Whitt contributed to this report.

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