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Gov's Budget Highlights Maintenance And Construction Woes Of Public Schools

For the first time in years, Florida’s public, K-12 schools are slated to get state money for construction and maintenance. But school officials say while they’re grateful for what’s been proposed, they’re not ready to start counting those dollars just yet.

Governor Rick Scott’s proposed budget allocates  $80 million for new roofs, air conditioners and other overdue maintenance projects at the state’s more than 3,500 public schools. It may sound like a lot of money, but Halandale Beach Democratic Representative Joe Gibbons says it won’t go very far.

"Just looking at Broward County alone, they need like $40 million just for roofs by themselves and I don’t expect that you would have that responsibility, but I want to know how we come up with the figure of $80 million," he told the state Office of Policy and Budget Director during a hearing on the Governor's proposed education funding.

Florida School Board Association Chairman Wayne Blanton says the state’s 67 school districts need four to five times as much as the governor is suggesting.

“If we could get a consistent amount of dollars in the range of $360-$400 million a year, that would allow us not only to keep our schools up, but start replacing some of those older schools, which quite frankly, cost more than a newer school," Blanton said.

Florida’s Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, Fund is the pot of money used to finance construction and maintenance at state-owned schools, colleges and universities. The fund pulls in money from taxes on services such as landline telephones. But since many people have abandoned their house phones in favor of cell phone service only, resources for PECO have dried up. So much so that what few dollars PECO has had left in recent years have gone to charter schools. The reason: many of those charter schools, while a part of school districts—don’t get the same local maintenance funds districts raise through property or sales taxes. 

This year, Governor Rick Scott is proposing to spend $90 million PECO dollars on charter schools – several million more than public schools would get. But some lawmakers see a problem with that too. There are 3,500 public schools, and around 400 charter schools. Even if the figures were the same, the charters would each get a much larger share. But some school districts, like Leon, have already given up on PECO.

“We were able to build this brand new wing that we’re staring at off here to the right in addition to a facility here at Gretchen Everhart where students can train to become equipped for the real world which we’re trying to get them ready for," said District Spokesman Chis Petley during a tour of the school.

Leon County’s Gretchen Everhart School serves children with both physical and developmental disabilities. It draws them in from around four surrounding counties.  The school recently added a new building with classrooms that look more like apartments—complete with living rooms, kitchens and washrooms. Another recent renovation, says the school's Assistant Principal Kent Hamilton, involves the in-ground swimming pool.

“The freedom of the water, for the person in the wheelchair, really makes a difference,” Hamilton said.

The school features water therapy, sound therapy and a jungle gym to stimulate students’ senses—features not offered at many other schools. School district spokesman Chris Petley says the district used federal funds and money raised through a half-penny sales tax to pay for the addition and the renovations.

Leon has historically gotten about $7.5 million a year in PECO. But for the past few years, that amount has been $0. The district spends closer to $13 million a year on construction and maintenance projects. The half-penny sales tax approved by voters now covers those costs and some. But Leon is the exception—not the rule. Florida School Board Association President Wayne Blanton says not every district can tax its residents and generate money:

“A new elementary school costs $30 million, a middle school costs $40 million and a high school costs $50 million and up now. So if the state doesn’t step up to help smaller districts, they have nowhere to turn.” 

But help may be on the way. A proposal to replenish PECO dollars is being floated by state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam—and many are looking to see whether Putnam’s plan can stop the bleeding of the state PECO fund and restore some kind of certainty for cash-strapped schools. 

For more news updates, follow Lynn Hatter on twitter @HatterLynn!

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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