Florida continues to slash funds for schools

Spinnaker

Tallahassee continues to slash the budget, but it looks like UNF might be spared the worst of it.

With five weeks gone in the 2011 legislative session, the Florida House and Senate continue to tweak their differing budgets, counting down to the May 6 deadline.

The latest proposals cut the $74 million pot of nontuition state money by nearly $8 million in the House and $6 million in the Senate. The budgets include major pension and health care reform for state employees and numerous changes in post-secondary education funding.

Despite these cuts, it looks like state universities will come out in decent shape, considering the $4 billion hole Florida legislators had to fill.

“I’m a little relieved we weren’t cut deeper,” said UNF Vice President for Governmental Affairs Janet Owen. “It could have been worse, but it’s still early.”

One request UNF has of the legislature at this time has little to do with the new budget proposals and more with the allocation of funds. The school needs legislative approval to transfer $2.4 million from accounts originally allocated for other projects into an account for the construction of the third and fourth floors of a new dining facility, on which construction starts in May, Owen said.

The transfer is necessary in part due to the shortfall in state funds for construction and repairs for K-12 schools, state colleges and universities. The money for Public Education Capital Outlay, which funds construction and repairs, comes from a tax on the sale of utility services, which is shrinking.

To make up for that shortfall, UNF trimmed their own budget for two other construction projects: the Disability Resource Center and the Science and Humanities Building, Owen said. UNF needs state approval to transfer those savings to an account for the new dining facility, which it is likely to get, Owen said.

There is already language in the Senate budget allowing the transfer, and Owen said she is “very optimistic” the House will change language in their version of the budget to accommodate the transfer.

There were several changes in both the House and Senate that may increase students’ bills come tuition-payment time. The House bill includes increasing undergraduate tuition 5 percent, and giving the university boards of trustees the authority to increase it by another 10 percent. Both the House and Senate agree on increasing the excess credit hour surcharge.

In other words, for credit hours over 115 percent of your degree requirements, rather than the current 120 percent, the bill would charge each student a 100 percent surcharge, instead of the current 50 percent.

Some students find this new surcharge a little steep.

“I think you should be able to get an education and benefits for as long as you live in that state,” said Hunter Dechman, a UNF economics junior.

In other notes, the Senate plans to reward certain students if they choose to take upper division courses in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. The Senate also proposes a re-prioritization of all state student financial aid to help students with the most need up to the full cost of tuition and fees.

However, possibly the most substantial bill proposed was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott March 24, which impacts aspiring teachers significantly. The bill most notably eliminates multi-year contracts for new teachers starting July 1.

That means limited job stability for any K-12 teacher entering the work force on or after that date.

Some aspiring teachers say this won’t necessarily improve teaching performance for young teachers.

“One thing to remember is your first year is still your first year as a teacher, [and] probably your hardest year ever,” said Justin Crandall a UNF education senior . “I don’t think it will improve teaching performance in your first year.”

Among the changes affecting UNF employees is a required 3 percent pre-tax employee contribution into the state retirement system by all employees, effective July 1, 2011. According to analysts, this contribution by all state employees will free up $710 million in state funds to help the almost $4 billion revenue shortfall expected during the next budget year.

University presidents and university administrative employees might also take a hit next year, as the House proposed reducing the amount of salary from state funds for 2011-2012 for both.

With all the cuts and slashes, though, it hasn’t been all bad for UNF.

“It shows the legislature understands that higher education is important,” Owen said. “And it shows they understand it is important for the economy, as well.”