TALLAHASSEE -- Legislative budget negotiators were literally pennies apart from an agreement to cut spending by about $540 per student in Florida’s public schools on Friday.
Senators proposed spending $6,269.63 per student while their House counterparts offered $6,270.15, a difference of 52 cents. Talks were continuing.
Either way schools would be facing a 7.9 percent cut in current spending, but lawmakers said they could make up most of the reduction through other funding sources.
That includes what in effect would be a 3 percent pay cut for teachers and other employees. Legislative leaders earlier agreed that the budget will include a requirement for teachers, state workers and many local government employees to contribute that much of their pay to the Florida Retirement System, now fully supported by taxpayers.
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The employee retirement contributions are expected to save $860 million for school districts alone.
Sen. David Simmons, a Maitland Republican who heads the Senate side of a joint conference committee on prekindergarten-12th grade funding, said the retirement contributions would put Florida in line with most private companies and other states.
Simmons acknowledged it amounts to a pay cut but said everyone needs to sacrifice as the recession-battered state tries to make up a $3.75 billion shortfall expected in the budget year beginning July 1.
“No one here enjoys doing what we’re doing,” Simmons said “It literally is a significant, significant burden to me to in fact realize that this is something that has to be done. At the same time my goal is that there will be a day that we’ll make this up.”
Most school districts also have millions in unspent federal jobs money that can be used in the next budget year. Finally, districts can raise property taxes by 25 cents per $1,000 of taxable value.
Those two sources combined with the saving from the employee pension contributions could make up all except about $83 of the per student spending cut. That would be a reduction of 1.2 percent from current spending.
“It could be a lot worse,” said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who’s also CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “Considering the budget situation that we’re in statewide and considering what’s happening to other agencies in Florida we’ll survive but it’ll be tough.”
“But best case scenario we can still expect to have cuts in programs and even some more layoffs,” Montford said. He said for districts that didn’t save their federal jobs money “it’s going to be a really, really though year.”
The 2011-12 budget is expected to total at least $66.5 billion after cuts of nearly $4 billion, including more than $1 billion in reductions for public schools.
Budget talks are expected to continue through the weekend.