Budget situation is ‘better than expected’
By AMY HOLLYFIELD and PATRICIA MAZZEI
Herald Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers wrapped up preK-12 budget negotiations Friday largely answering the cries of parents, teachers and students who had feared a bloodbath.
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In recent months, words like “dire,” “drastic,” even “horrifying’’ were used to describe cuts that were expected for the state’s education budget. But as the dust settles, relief is palpable.
“We’re going to end up the session with good support for next year,” said Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith. “So much better than we were expecting.”
Per-student funding holds steady at about $6,873, slightly up from the 2008-09 rate. District administrators get unprecedented flexibility in spending, something school districts have sought for years — even though there is less money to spend. And funding is restored for such popular programs as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Florida’s Virtual School.
Credit for the reprieve goes to more than $2 billion in stimulus money, which lawmakers infused into the preK-12 budget (though, technically the application is pending), and late moves to increase the amount used in the 2009-10 year.
Not all was resolved, however. The Senate made a surprise push Friday to include $50,000 for Haitian-American history that hadn’t been discussed before. And senators raised late concerns about a plan to shift some property tax money away from school capital spending. House and Senate budget leaders will resolve those issues over the weekend.
When the final budget is printed next week, educators will have a better idea of its affect on their districts. But here’s a look at some prime issues lawmakers agreed on:
n AP/IB funding: In a win for school districts, the House and Senate agreed not to cut funding to Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and other rigorous high school courses. The Senate had proposed slashing money for training, instructional materials and bonuses for teachers whose students pass the exams.
n Instructional materials: A plan — opposed by the textbook industry — to extend the adoption cycle of instructional materials from six to eight years was dropped. School districts had wanted it as a way to save money. “Our position is, buy the math books. Buy the math books!’’ said Republican Sen. Stephen Wise of Jacksonville, adding that hearing about students sharing textbooks irritated him and his colleagues. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Children need to have textbooks.”
n Flexible school scheduling: A budget provision declares that the school term is 180 days or the hourly equivalent, meaning districts can set the calendar to their needs, be it four-day weeks, longer days before holiday breaks to fit in coursework or whatever they decide. Districts asked for this flexibility.
n Board certified teachers: Lawmakers preserved bonuses for Florida’s National Board certified teachers, ditching a House plan to limit the bonuses to classroom teachers in low-performing schools.
n Fructose in schools: Negotiators fought back a push to ban high fructose corn syrup items on school menus, an effort led by Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami. Studies show food costs would jump if districts had to buy items without the sweetener, which is common in sodas, fruit-flavored drinks and many processed foods.
n School board salaries: School board member salaries in 2009-10 will be capped at the average of beginning teachers, something many school districts already do, according to Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. “That’s fair,” he said.