State Politics

Detert looking for new ways to pay for schools

MANATEE — Sarasota’s Nancy Detert, chair of the Florida Senate’s Committee on Education Pre K-12, is among those who have spent the past few weeks trolling the recession-dry state budget in an effort to find enough money to adequately finance public schools.

Some of her Senate colleagues want to allow expanded gambling to raise as much as $400 million a year, but that is a course she views as a distasteful last resort.

“I think it’s sad when states have to depend on gambling to pay for their necessary services,” she said last week. “The devil is always in the details, it’s something we’re forced to take a real serious look at.”

“Tourists and other people who are retired like to gamble and think it’s fun,” she said. “Rather than get it from gambling, the other half thinks it just creates problems. My fear is we’ll have gambling in every city and county, and I don’t want to go that way.”

Still, if it came down to accepting gambling money or cutting more dollars from education, “I would have to accept gambling, if I personally like it or not,” she said.

Detert, a Republican, also serves on the Committee on Education Pre K-12 Appropriations and is the Senate’s low-key majority whip.

She favors allowing voters to decide via a constitutional amendment whether they want a one-cent sales tax increase to better finance public schools, and whether they would be willing to repeal the current strict class-size requirements in favor of a more flexible system, she said.

“We think the Senate is looking favorably on it,” Detert said of the proposal. “We would like to tie it to the class size amendment and put it on the ballot.”

Asked if she thought such a plan might win approval, she replied, “It’s up to the voters; everyone in education circles supports more dollars for education, but are the voters willing to make that sacrifice? It will be their choice.”

Detert’s committee recently approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, that calls for a relaxation of strict class-size limits slated to go into effect next year.

Last week, lawmakers disclosed a first draft of a new education budget that would leave public school spending virtually unchanged at $6,860 per student, officials said.

The proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would rely on federal stimulus dollars and expanded Seminole Indian gambling to offset declines in sales, property and other tax receipts, officials have said.

However, it does not include any money from an increased sales tax, which would have to be approved by voters either in a special election later this year or during the general election in 2010. Such a measure would increase statewide sales taxes from 6 percent to 7 percent, raising $2.8 billion annually.

The additional revenue could be used to restore prior school spending cuts and fill the budget gap that will be left when the federal stimulus program expires after the 2010-11 budget year, officials have said.

In 2002, voters approved the class-size constitutional amendment, setting limits of 18 students per class for kindergarten through third grade, 22 for fourth through eighth grades, and 25 per high school class beginning in the 2010-11 school year.

Wise’s proposal would change how class size compliance is calculated, according to a legislative staff analysis of the proposal.

This year, the limits must be met on a “school-average” basis but would tighten next year to a “per classroom” basis under current law. Wise’s proposal would keep limits at a “school average” level.

The proposal would limit the number of students assigned to each teacher next year calculated by a school-wide average of 18 for kindergarten through third grade; 22 for fourth through eighth grade, and 25 for high schools, according to the analysis.

“It’s an excellent bill,” Detert said.

“It calls for freezing class size at what it is — 25 would be the worst case for high school and middle school, and less for grade school,” she said. “We’re spending $1 billion to remove two kids from a classroom. That has just been a budget buster. Under Wise’s bill, we would take his language and go back to the voters and ask if they’re satisfied with the class size.

“It’s been lowered over the last three years,” she added. “It would freeze at the current level to free up money for schools to do other things with that money. We would ask to build new schools, hire new teachers.”

Detert said she would “absolutely” support the amendment should it make it through the legislature to the ballot.

Public school superintendents who visited Tallahassee recently seemed OK with the Senate plan, and they would be even more amenable if it also included budgetary flexibility Detert has proposed, she said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.