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Chair of senate education panel heaps praise on Scott budget proposal

Sen. David Simmons was effusive in his praise for Gov. Rick Scott’s budget, calling it an “excellent proposal” during Thursday’s meeting of the Budget Subcommittee on Education Pre-K-12 Appropriations.

“I am just so proud of what the governor has done,” said Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who is chairman of the subcommittee. “I think that it is a tremendous statement on his behalf as to his belief in the future of the state of Florida, and he is to be commended for taking such a strong statement for education.”

Scott's budget includes a $1 billion increase in education spending. However, school districts still face a $337 million shortfall, Simmons said. Rising retirement fund costs, the loss of non-recurring dollars, reductions in property tax revenue and an increase in the number of students left a much bigger hole before the governor’s proposed increases, he said.

“What I can say is when you’re talking about this much money, the governor has essentially level-funded education from this year to last year,” Simmons said.

Scott Kittel, the governor’s education policy coordinator, gave the Senate panel an overview of the funding cuts and increases built into the proposed budget. He pointed out that both per-student spending and the percentage of district expenses covered by state funding had reached levels that harken back to more robust times.

“We’re recovering from much of the downfall over the last few years in this budget,” Kittel said.

The cuts include eliminating 78 education positions and reducing funding for school and instructional support programs by $16 million. The remaining $12.2 million would be awarded through a competitive grant process, Kittel said.

Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, said such a solicitation process could prove too lengthy and cumbersome for school systems that need the money at the beginning of the academic year. He called the plan “impractical.”

“Having run grants and contracts for 23 years, that becomes a nightmare for the school districts,” he said.