Fla. Legislators Approve New Plan for School Construction Spending

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Florida's special legislative session on school crowding wrapped up Nov. 7 after lawmakers agreed almost unanimously to spend $2.7 billion on school construction over the next five years.

Most of the money will be available to districts next spring. Schools with the greatest needs will receive the most money, according to state officials.

Members of the state's Republican-controlled legislature returned to their home districts after the session having kept their promise to resolve the crowding problem without raising taxes. ("Lawmakers Act To Ease Crowding," Nov. 12, 1997.)

Instead, schools will be built and repaired mainly with borrowed money--$2.5 billion in construction bonds that will be paid back over 30 years with state lottery revenues. The other $200 million will come from nonrecurring general revenue funds. Another $200 million, for a total of $2.9 billion, is expected to come from local district sources.

The plan allocates $2 billion in state aid that will flow to school districts through a modified "public education capital outlay," or PECO, formula.

In addition, $200 million will be made available through a school infrastructure trust fund that will reward districts that build what are deemed cost-effective schools, and $400 million will be made available through a so-called effort index, for districts that have made efforts to raise money for construction locally.

The remaining $100 million includes funds for teaching supplies, as well as dollars targeted to small and rural school districts.

Lottery Shift

State lottery proceeds now pay for school operations. Under the new plan, the state will replace those dollars with money drawn from its general-revenue coffers. Lottery dollars then will be freed up to support construction and renovation needs.

The Senate passed the legislation 34-0, while the House approved it 116-1. Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, who had asked the legislature to approve a $3.3 billion plan that included a tax increase, hailed the plan at a post-session press conference on Nov. 7, before taking a bite of an apple offered to him by Senate President Toni Jennings, a Republican. "I want to tell you we passed with flying colors," Mr. Chiles said.

Officials say that although the pact goes a long way toward addressing unmet construction and renovation needs, it won't totally resolve the state's school crowding problem. Districts will still need to raise millions of dollars for school construction through local taxes.

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