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House committee asks Scott to 'redo' K-12 budget; School board member raises legal questions

Eyebrows arched and heads shook this morning among Florida House lawmakers on the K-12 budget committee as they tried to digest Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to slash per-student spending by 10 percent.

“A 10 percent reduction is a significant cut,” said committee Chairwoman Marti Coley, R-Marianna.

Coley was animated during the presentation from Scott Kittel, Scott’s education policy coordinator. She noted Scott spends some federal stimulus money in his proposal and at one point accused the governor’s office of using the K-12 budget to show both a cut in spending and a way to keep school districts from losing any money.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Coley said.

Asked after the meeting if she was surprised at Scott's proposed budget cuts given his campaign promises, she nodded her head while repeating her line that about a "significant cut."

Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, scolded the governor’s office for not including all potential spending in the school funding formula.

“It’s imperative that you go back and you redo the numbers,” Adkins said.

Adkins was refering to Scott's proposal that teachers, firefighters, cops, and state workers contribute 5 percent of their salaries to their pensions. Teachers account for 48 percent of participants in the Florida retirement system, which means the education budget could be reduced by $518 million in state spending.

Scott includes that reduction in his proposal, but also puts a notation in the schools budget showing lawmakers could decide to spend that $518 million on other areas of the education budget.

But it was never clear exactly why Scott didn’t put that $518 million into his recommendation.

“Those dollars are available but they are not part of the funding formula. And we don’t propose that they be part of it,” Kittel said.

“On the other hand, it is a possible way of doing the run (of the funding formula) and as the Legislature moves into session it may be something you choose to take up,” Kittel said. ”It’s just not this governor’s recommended way of dealing with those accounts.”

Included in Scott’s controversial education proposal is the renaming of Florida’s school funding program, from the Florida Education Financing Program to the Education Choice Program.

Kittel acknowledged that the new name was hat tip to the Bush v. Holmes state Supreme Court decision, which struck nearly all of the state’s biggest voucher program at the time.

But Kittel said the only plan in the budget to expand vouchers was to increase the remaining portion of the so-called Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program currently lets students at an F-graded public schools transfer to another public school within the district or an adjacent district. Kittle said Scott wanted to make those public school transfers available to more students.

In the end, Coley may have had the understatement of the morning, telling Kittel that school boards are “a little panicked’ by Scott’s budget proposal.

After the meeting, Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado said she would urge her board to sue the state if Scott’s budget is approved.

“As we flush out what’s going to happen from a budgetary perspective, we have to make decisions not just through the association of school boards but district-by-district as to what our legal rights against the state are,” Regalado said.