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Dade Looks to Legislature for Help Covering Storm Damage

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Dade County, Fla., school officials are looking to the legislature to cover $20.7 million of the estimated $262 million lost by the district as a result of Hurricane Andrew.

One proposal that is likely to be put before the legislature to cover hurricane-related expenses is a half-cent sales-tax increase that would expire after six months. Part of the $200 million to $300 million generated from the temporary tax hike would go to Dade schools.

The plan could be on the agenda this week, as House and Senate lawmakers meet to elect their leaderships for the upcoming session.

But conflicts over control of the Senate, which shifted in the elections from a narrow Democratic margin to an even 20-20 split between the parties, could preclude consideration of the issue, observers said.

The biggest expense facing the Dade district is the estimated $230 million it will cost to repair and replace buildings, furniture, and equipment.

Insurance is expected to pick up the largest share of the costs, some $150 million.

The federal government has already provided $52.5 million in impact aid to the Florida schools, which will be reimbursed another $80 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Stabilizing the Region

Another major financial problem for Dade is a reduction in state per-pupil aid as a result of a hurricane-related decline in enrollment.

A week before Andrew swept across the southern half of the county, Dade school officials had anticipated a student enrollment of 312,000 this year. When schools finally opened three weeks later, only 279,000 students had registered, although that number had climbed to 298,000 by last week, according to Richard Hinds, the deputy superintendent for finance.

While the district is in danger of forfeiting per-pupil state aid, it has maintained a higher level of staffing in anticipation of recovering enrollment and to stabilize the hardest-hit regions, Mr. Hinds said.

For example, one high school that typically holds 2,300 students currently has an enrollment of 1,200. If staff size were cut to match the number of students, "we would have to reschedule every student in that high school and limit course offerings,'' Mr. Hinds said.

"We felt that was just totally undesirable from a student standpoint,'' he added. "Beyond that, you would just continue the disruption and trauma caused by the storm.''

"We're doing it mostly for the students, but the people who are serving those schools are mainly people whose houses have been devastated,'' Mr. Hinds noted.

The district is seeking $20.7 million in hold-harmless funding to offset the loss of per-pupil aid.

'This Could Happen Anyplace'

Observers last week predicted that a leadership struggle in the Senate could distract lawmakers from dealing with emergency funding for victims of the storm.

"If we wait until February, there will be a tremendous amount of momentum lost on this issue,'' said Rep. Michael I. Abrams of Dade County, the chairman of the House Finance and Taxation Committee.

The Dade delegation has "to make them understand this could happen anyplace in Florida,'' he continued. "If state government can't be there when the very social and economic welfare and safety of the people are clearly at risk, then how do we justify our existence?''

Even if the district can ride out the immediate financial crisis resulting from Andrew, officials added, future funding worries arise.

While property-tax collections are not expected to suffer this year, because most of that money is covered in mortgage escrow accounts, it is unclear how much of a reduction there will be during the time it takes the county to rebuild.

Roughly 25 percent of the district budget is funded by property taxes.

Moreover, Mr. Hinds pointed out, the district receives about $200 less per pupil than it did two years ago, and has cut some $100 million in programs in the past couple of years.

"Those underlying economic problems haven't gone away,'' he said.

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