Florida Senate advances controversial Title I school funding bill, worrying district leaders Jeffrey S. Solochek, Times Staff Writer

Proposed dramatic changes to the way Florida schools get and use federal Title I funding gained support in the state Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday, paving the way for their likely adoption into law.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who heads the state superintendents association, tried to kill the language, which came from a House bill on charter schools. But the committee rejected his amendments to remove the provisions, which would spread the funding -- intended to improve academic programs for low-income children -- to more schools including charters, and limit district-level controls over the money.

SB 1362 still requires full Senate passage. Observers held out little expectation that it would fail, given the priority the House has placed on the legislation. Still others, though, noted that powerful Appropriations chairman Sen. Jack Latavala opposed the bill in his committee, and held out hope he would fight the proposal on the floor.

School district officials have raised strong objections to the measure, worrying that it would water down programs and could lead to job losses.

"A number of our community members and parents are aware of the services we provide in our 63 Title I schools," said Felita Grant, Title I director for Pinellas County schools. "It would be a shock to them if this bill goes through the number of services we would have to cut back on."

She created a three-page document for district leaders and lawmakers to understand the full scope of the proposal, which she said would reach far beyond the federal requirements on the money. Among her concerns:

- "If the threshold for allocating Title I dollars to schools is lowered to the state’s average, we will be required to serve an additional 16 school sites, with either no additional funding, or perhaps a reduced level of funding."

- "If this becomes State Law the Pinellas County School District will no longer be able to reserve Title I funds to target specific areas of need for individual schools or groups of schools." Those include ELA and math instructional coaches in Transformation schools, financial incentives to keep teachers at 15 needy schools, and the district's Summer Bridge program.

Pasco County schools crafted a similar letter to distribute to its legislative delegation.

"It is our belief that Pasco County Schools is in tune with the specific and individual needs of our schools and should be allowed to exercise local control of our Title 1 funds," wrote superintendent Kurt Browning, who sent two staffers to lobby lawmakers on the issue.

Federal funding consultant Cheryl Sattler said she was hopeful more school district officials would "come out of the woodwork" to speak against this legislation. She said it might appear to put more money directly into student education, but the result would be the opposite.

While lawmakers debated the issue, she spent her morning with Marion County school district leaders "having a very grim discussion" about who might lose their jobs if the language makes it through.

"It's very bad," Sattler said.


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