Public school funding lines up

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Posted April 25, 2023 | By Ryan Dailey and Jim Turner
Florida News Service

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect an agreement on a $350 million education budget item. 

House and Senate budget negotiators appeared to be coming together on public-school funding, agreeing Tuesday to provide $350 million to help school districts if the financial impact of an expanded voucher system is larger than anticipated.

Budget conference committees crossed many issues off the to-do list, but the House and Senate remained apart on a variety of large topics, such as funding for land preservation and addressing rising sea levels.

Lawmakers on Monday began negotiating a budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, with the final plan expected to be larger than the current year’s $109.9 billion budget. The new budget needs to be finished May 2 if lawmakers hope to end the legislative session as scheduled May 5. That is because of a required 72-hour “cooling off” period before lawmakers can vote on the spending plan.

House and Senate negotiators aligned on a plan to spend $26.76 billion on the Florida Education Finance Program, the main funding source for public schools. That would represent a $2.2 billion increase over the current year.

“We’re done. I mean, we’ve pretty much wrapped the FEFP (Florida Education Finance Program) formula up,” Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, told reporters Monday night.

Negotiators followed Tuesday by agreeing to provide $350 million for what would be called the Education Enrollment Stabilization Program. That program would help protect school districts and charter schools from financial instability if they face unexpected enrollment changes caused by the state’s massive expansion of school vouchers.

“It has been our commitment from day one that, what if we are wrong? We always hope that we are not wrong, but we are anticipating that … if proration becomes an issue, we want to keep those school districts whole. And so we think that we have done that by putting this $350 million in there,” House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairwoman Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City, told reporters.

School districts would be able to tap into the funds through the state Department of Education, Tomkow said.

The voucher expansion (HB 1), which has been approved by lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis, will make every Florida student eligible to receive vouchers. It remains uncertain how many families will participate and how schools’ enrollment would be affected.

In higher education, the House and Senate aligned Tuesday on $100 million aimed at recruiting and retaining faculty members in the state university system — matching a request by DeSantis for such recruitment efforts.

Perry told reporters that the $100 million’s potential impact would be “huge” for universities, especially for schools that don’t typically receive what’s known as “preeminence” funding. That funding only goes to universities that meet certain criteria.

“I think if you think about some of the preeminence, look, I live in Gainesville, my father was a professor at UF (the University of Florida), so I have a heart for UF. But at the same time, some of the bigger schools like UF and FSU (Florida State University) get a lot of the preeminence money. And this is a broader pot of money that can be dispersed, and some of the smaller schools might be in line to get that,” Perry said.Meanwhile, the House and Senate continued to have differences on other big-ticket issues.

The Senate has increased from $337 million to $400 million a proposal to increase land preservation through purchasing conservation easements, which limit development while allowing ranching and farming operations to continue. The House, which initially proposed spending $50 million, upped its counter-offer to $75 million.

To address sea-level changes, the House increased its proposal $300 million to $389 million, while the Senate has so far held at $179 million.

“I think a lot of what we’re trying to do is make sure our priorities are recognized,” Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Chairman Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said. “And as we find places where we can get an agreement, that’s almost sometimes like squeezing a balloon. You tighten one place, it blows up somewhere else. So, a lot of that is probably a reaction to a lot of the choices we’re making as we move forward.”

With leaders on both sides having similar views on the environment, Brodeur said the question is more “how we might get there.”

The House and Senate also remained apart on how far to expand the physical footprint of the Capitol.

While agreeing to spend $2 million on a “Memorial Park” across busy Monroe Street from the Capitol, the two chambers have not settled on how much property should fall within the definition of the Capitol Complex.

The Senate is looking to fold the Holland Building, the Elliot Building and their associated parking garages into the definition of the complex, with the Elliot Building being replaced by the Memorial Park. The House agrees with those proposals but also wants to include the R.A. Gray Building, which houses the Department of State, the Museum of Florida History and the Division of Library and Information Services.

The Florida Supreme Court sits between the Capitol and the R.A. Gray Building.

Brodeur said the state has to determine security responsibilities for facilities that cross public roads.

“We’re just narrowing that down because we talked about security around the park,” Brodeur said. “We’re also talking about the roads. We’re talking about the easements. The access. All that kind of thing. We don’t want to impede on what would normally be Tallahassee police (jurisdiction).”

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