By ANNA SCOTT
Sun Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE - Florida´s schools will face unprecedented cuts - in some cases by more than $200 per pupil - under the budget agreement expected to be approved this week by the Legislature.
Not only do the cuts mark the first drop in student spending in decades, but it is the first time since the modern school funding formula was established in 1973 that local property taxes will foot the bulk of the burden.
Lawmakers played down that fact Tuesday, but critics say the dwindling state contribution shows the need for the very property taxes state leaders are trying to roll back. An amendment headed for the November ballot would cut property taxes for schools entirely.
“They´re relying more than ever on local taxpayers at a time when they´re talking about giving breaks,” said Shirley Brown, a Sarasota School Board member and former state legislator. “They´re talking out of both sides of the mouth.”
In the upcoming budget, lawmakers upped the required local effort millage by 3 percent but capped the amount of money counties are allowed to raise for construction projects from 2 mills to 1.75.
The one-year “swap” in local tax sources will not take more money from local taxpayers, said state Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, but will allow schools to use money that would have normally gone to construction projects for classroom spending.
Schools will need less construction money because of declining enrollment, said Pickens, chairman of the House education committee.
This may not be the last cut schools see for the 2008-09 school year if the economy continues to slide. Twice this year the state was forced to reduce funding because of dropping revenues, by about 1 percent each time.
Amy Baker, the Legislature´s chief economist, said the risk for more surprises is still high because of the volatile credit and energy markets, and the national recession.
“If the economy keeps going the way it´s going, it (another midyear cut to the education budget) may be something that´s coming,” Pickens said.
The complicated structure of Florida´s school funding formula means some schools are hit harder than others by cuts.
For example, students in one county, Hamilton, will actually receive a spending increase of $29 per student. Meanwhile, Alachua County takes one of the biggest hits, a decrease of $213 per student.
The inequities can be misleading because the formula makes adjustments based on property wealth and enrollment growth. But this year the range among school districts is far wider than normal, said Wayne Blanton, who has been lobbying for Florida school districts for 33 years.
Lawmakers cut the extra funding for schools with declining enrollment, making those districts´ cuts look comparatively larger than they would have otherwise. And this year is also the first year payout of the controversial teacher bonus reward program.
Because so few school districts, eight, agreed to participate, they received bulk shares of the more than $30 million program, said Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville.
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