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Florida Court Strikes Cap on Local School Levies

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A Florida appeals court has knocked down the state's cap on local school-tax levies.

The action could undermine attempts to equalize school spending, state education officials said.

The state filed a notice of appeal with the Florida Supreme Court last month, shortly after the lower court ruled that the cap infringed on the constitutional rights of school districts to set taxes.

Although the state constitution restricts property levies to 10 mills, the legislature had imposed a 7 mill cap on districts.

Sarasota County schools last year sued the state, contending that lawmakers had no right to limit districts' authority to raise taxes.

Beginning last year, the district levied a somewhat higher millage that raised roughly $6 million. A similar amount is expected to be raised this year, although the funds will stay in escrow pending a decision by the supreme court.

"We ought to be able to do more and ask the people to do more if they want,'' said Jeanne Medawar, a lawyer for the Sarasota district.

If the state had provided more school aid, she continued, "I suspect our board might not have ever considered this.''

The legislature has authorized some additional monies for schools this year, but not to the level that Gov. Lawton Chiles and Commissioner of Education Betty Castor have sought.

Heading Off Finance Suits

The legislature imposed the cap to assure that there was general equalization of spending among students throughout the state, explained Sydney McKenzie, the general counsel for the state education department.

Up to this point, Florida has been able to ward off finance-equity lawsuits, in large measure due to its attempts to keep spending differences among districts relatively low.

Even with the cap in place, however, a disparity of approximately 19 percent exists between the districts with the highest and lowest levels of student spending.

Unless the supreme court overrules the appeals court's ruling, "the wealthier districts would have the potential to spend more,'' said Mr. McKenzie.

"It is a question of whether they would be willing to tax themselves up to 10 mills,'' he added. "Some districts very well might.''

Meanwhile, Ms. Castor was expected this month to appoint members to a new advisory committee that will examine and make recommendations about education funding in the state.

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