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Lawmakers Act To Ease Crowding

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Tallahassee, Fla.

In the unlikely event that the state lawmakers gathered here for a special session last week forgot why they had been called to duty, a dilapidated portable classroom in the middle of the sparkling Capitol courtyard served as a sharp reminder.

The 41-year-old, 40-foot-long, aluminum-sided, and almost windowless portable was on its way to Tallahassee's Lincoln High, one of Florida's many overcrowded high schools.

But Gov. Lawton Chiles, mindful of the power of a good symbol, arranged for the portable classroom's temporary redeployment last week to illustrate how dire the facilities crunch has gotten for the Sunshine State's 2.25 million schoolchildren, thousands of whom attend classes in similarly decaying portables.

As lawmakers gathered here for a special weeklong session on school crowding, they passed the portable, which was draped with banners bearing messages such as "We Can Do Better!" and "Build Schools Now!"

By week's end here, both chambers of the legislature had risen to that challenge.

After months of political wrangling, leaders of the House and the Senate finally brokered an agreement to spend $2.7 billion in borrowed dollars to build schools over the next five years.

That amount is not enough to make the 22,000 portable classrooms in the state disappear entirely, and not quite enough to meet the $3.3 billion statewide facilities need that a bipartisan governor's commission had outlined last month. Still, it will be a welcome windfall, visibly relieved state leaders said last Thursday night, especially for Florida's most acutely crowded school districts. They were expected to vote on the plan late Friday.

"That sounds like a good deal to me," Senate President Toni Jennings, herself a former public school teacher, said before shaking House Speaker and fellow Republican Daniel A. Webster's hand on the agreement. "Hopefully, we've found a way to address the needs of Florida's schoolchildren."

Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, who was beaming as he emerged from the joint talks late last Thursday night, said the amount pledged for school construction was unprecedented in the state. He praised lawmakers for fulfilling their mission without raising taxes.

"I'm very pleased. The new money will go a long, long way to relieve overcrowding," the commissioner, a Republican, said.

School groups were also enthusiastic.

"We're very encouraged that they came up to $2.7 billion," said Sandy Traeger, the president of the Florida PTA. "Overcrowded school districts can certainly do a lot with that money."

Andrea Whitely, the president of the Florida School Boards Association, said that while school boards had been "comfortable with the $3.3 billion the governor had proposed, we'll take what we can get." Like so many buzzing around the Capitol last week, Ms. Whitely had accessorized with a blue "End the Classroom Crunch" button.

Late on the evening of Nov. 6, legislative leaders had agreed to spend $180 million in lottery funding over the next 30 years, using it as collateral to borrow up to $2.5 billion in school construction bonds. To replace the lottery dollars going to school construction, the state will boost overall school spending by $180 million each fiscal year. In addition, the plan includes a one-time-only funding infusion of $200 million this year.

Plan Details

Lawmakers also put aside $600 million for two grant programs, one an incentive pot to reward districts that tap into local sources for construction funds, and another encouraging districts to build schools frugally, using state specifications. State leaders also earmarked $31.5 million for school supplies--some $250 for every public school teacher in the state.

Lawmakers were ironing out the final details last Friday morning and were expected to vote on the plan before leaving town that night. Gov. Chiles, a Democrat, had not commented on the proposal as of Friday morning. Insiders said that they expected the plan to pass easily in the House and Senate on Friday, and that the governor would sign the measure.

The $2.7 billion figure represents a compromise for both chambers of the legislature. By Thursday, lawmakers had agreed on a general dollar amount and on the source for the new funds. The biggest sticking points between the House and Senate last week appeared tied to how new money would be distributed to the state's 67 countywide school districts.

The SMART Schools plan--Soundly-Made, Accountable, Reasonable, and Thrifty Schools--that the House announced last month would have provided aid only to districts that, according to Speaker Webster, agreed to build low-cost schools and "demonstrate an appropriate level of local effort to raise funds." Under that proposal, school districts would have been required to raise as much money as possible through local taxes before tapping into state resources.

The Senate's proposal, "Classrooms First," would have parceled out money to schools based on the age of a district's schools and its growth.

"The Senate plan is much more acceptable to the school boards I've talked to," Sen. Charles H. Bronson, a Republican, said. He and other senators debating a compromise last Thursday were concerned that the House plan, by requiring districts to levy local taxes, went against many state lawmakers' pledges to resolve the crowding issue without raising taxes.

"We have pursued a policy of no new taxes," Republican Sen. John M. McKay added. "Doesn't [the House version] violate that no-new-taxes pledge?"

The compromise ultimately reached on Nov. 6 combines aspects of both plans, rewarding districts that meet a so-called effort index in local sales and property taxes--details of which were still being hammered out last Friday--and schools that build schools frugally, but doling out most of the state construction dollars based on need.

Better Than Expected

Ms. Traeger of the PTA said she was relieved that while the proposal has accountability measures in place, it leaves spending up to school districts.

The agreed-upon funding did not exactly translate into the $3.3 billion the governor had wanted, but it's a lot more than most in the state had expected.

"If a year ago, someone would have told me that the legislature was going to provide $2.7 billion for new schools, I would have thought they were insane," said Brewser Brown, a spokesman for the state department of education. "A week ago, we were lobbying to get up to $2 billion."

At the opening of the 1997 legislative session in January, Gov. Chiles had defined school crowding as among the state's most pressing problems.

But subsequent efforts to raise the state's utilities and telecommunications tax for school construction failed to gain momentum in either chamber of the legislature.

To win support for the special session, the governor spent much of the summer and fall visiting the state's most crowded districts. His efforts to build new schools were buoyed earlier this fall, when, after months of rancor and debate, the Governor's Commission on Education, a bipartisan task force assembled last year, estimated the state's school repair and construction needs to be $3.3 billion over the next five years. The task force also put forth the politically feasible solution of using some lottery dollars to raise school construction funds.

Voters approved the state lottery in 1986 to supplement schools. Currently, lottery dollars--more than $800 million last year--pay for preschool programs and the state's new Bright Futures scholarships.

What's left over is shared between K-12 schools and state colleges and universities.

Commissioner Brogan said that spending the lottery dollars on school buildings will allow people "to identify with how the lottery funds education."

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