Florida governor signs $92.2B budget after slashing $1B

TALLAHASSEE, Fa. (AP) — Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis slashed $1 billion from the state budget lawmakers approved in March, including some of his own priorities. He said after signing the spending plan Monday that the drop in revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic forced him to make difficult choices.

The state budget for the fiscal year that begins Wednesday will now total $92.2 billion.

DeSantis mostly talked about what was preserved in the budget, including $500 million in pay raises for teachers, a 3% raise for state workers, $625 million for Everglades restoration and other water quality projects and a boost in spending for child welfare.

“My goal was to try to safeguard the historic achievements that we were able to do, while also realizing historic savings so that we could put Florida on a solid fiscal foundation,” DeSantis said at a news conference announcing the budget signing.

He said he vetoed $550 million of his own priorities, including $20 million for a job growth grant fund.

“I want it, but at the same time, sometimes things need to be put on pause,” DeSantis said.

Among other cuts: $41.6 million for a school security program that trains teachers and other personnel to carry guns at school, $135 million to provided bonuses to schools based on their performance, and $225 million for a program that helps local government create and preserve affordable housing.

“As the reality changes, I think we all have to recognize that none of us are going to get everything that we want,” DeSantis said.

Florida doesn’t have an income tax and generates the bulk of its revenue from its sales tax. And that is boosted by the millions of tourists that come to the state each year. With many people not traveling and many residents staying home, the state has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax collections.

While praising DeSantis for preserving teacher and state worker pay raises, as well as environmental funding, Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani said in an emailed statement that the state wouldn’t have had to cut as much if it eliminated previously approved corporate tax breaks.

“Hard-working Floridians will always lose if we continue to allow corporations to set the funding and policy agenda. Yes, more people are suffering because of COVID-19, but the economic disparities many are feeling today have been the norm for far too many families for far too long,” she said.’

Republican House Speaker Jose Oliva and Republican Senate President Bill Galvano praised the cuts at a time of economic uncertainty, in separate statements emailed to media.

“The situation is still evolving, presenting new challenges on an almost daily basis. Despite these significant challenges, this balanced budget is a work product the people of Florida can be proud of,” Galvano said. “Key priorities are funded, and our state remains on solid financial footing heading into the new fiscal year. ”

The budget was approved in March, just as DeSantis was shutting down the state to try to prevent the spread of the virus. In the first two months of the shutdown, the state lost more than $1.5 billion in revenue, but still didn’t have to adjust the budget for the fiscal year ending Tuesday.

In all, more than 600 individual items were vetoed from the budget, including money for local projects and university programs. They ranged across projects big and small, like a $20,000 cut for Miami Gardens drainage improvement and $21 million to build a new Second District Court of Appeal in Pinellas County.

The state has gradually reopened with restaurants, retails stores, gyms and other businesses allowed to bring customers in at a limited capacity and with safety guidelines. But the state had to take a step back on Friday, when bars were ordered to stop serving alcoholic beverages. DeSantis has blamed a recent spike in coronavirus cases on some bars and younger people not following guidelines like social distancing and capacity restrictions.

Still DeSantis policy director Chris Spencer said the state’s month by month revenue shortfall compared to original predictions is starting to trend lower, from $878 million in March to a June report that should show about a $550 million shortfall. He expressed optimism that the state won’t have to make budget cuts later in the fiscal year if the shortfall keeps shrinking.

“The worst is behind us,” he said. “We feel confident with the reserves that we’ve accounted for and the vetoes that we’ve done and another host of measures that we’ve taken, that we have the resources that we need to absorb those losses going into the next fiscal year,” Spencer said.

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AP reporter Boby Caina Calvan contributed to this report.

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Florida visitor suspected of spreading virus on return to NY

NEW YORK (AP) — Health officials are investigating whether someone returning to the New York City area from Florida spread the coronavirus at a high school graduation in suburban Westchester County.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the investigation on Saturday after New York, New Jersey and Connecticut enacted 14-day traveler quarantines to try to check the spread of the virus.

A person “who had recently traveled to Florida and attended the ceremony subsequently began showing symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “Since then, four more individuals who attended the ceremony and had contact with the first positive case have also tested positive.”

It’s suspected the infections occurred at a “drive in” graduation ceremony at Horace Greeley High School or at a related event a week ago in Chappaqua, New York, officials said. Anyone who attended the graduation is expected to self-quarantine until July 5, they said.

A message was left on Saturday seeking comment from school district officials.

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Florida governor expands school voucher program

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Thursday that expands an existing school voucher program to allow more lower income families to participate.

The bill expands the income level for which families can receive a voucher for students to attend private school. The program gives corporations a tax credit if they provide money for students to switch from public to private schools.

“Florida has the most robust school choice program in the nation and I am proud to sign this legislation which increases the ability for even more families to choose the educational program that best suits their child,” DeSantis said in a media release.

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DeSantis signs bill for $500 million in teacher raises

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Wednesday to raise the minimum teacher salary to $47,500 and provide other raises at a cost of $500 million despite state revenue plummeting because of the coronavirus.

Raising teacher salaries was a top priority for DeSantis during the legislative session that ended with a budget being approved in mid-March — just as the state was shutting down because of the pandemic. Florida has no income tax and relies heavily on tourism and its sales tax for revenue, and has been hit hard by a drop in visitors.

“We’ve had a little bit of changes in everything happening in our world since then, so it was quite a challenge to make sure that even though we fought for it, that we’d be able to actually do it in the budget,” DeSantis said at a bill signing ceremony in a Miami-Dade County school. “(It’s) a different fiscal picture than what we were dealing with in January, February and early March.”

Lawmakers approved $500 million toward teacher pay raises — $400 million to boost the minimum teacher salary and $100 million for other pay raises. The money was less than the $900 million that DeSantis requested when he proclaimed last fall that it would be the “Year of the Teacher.”

DeSantis said other budget items he supports will be chopped when he finally signs the budget that goes into effect July 1. The governor is able to veto specific line items in the $92 billion spending plan approved by lawmakers.

“Although we have not made every decision about the budget, this will be there 100 percent. We’re going to have to make tough choices, but this is important,” DeSantis said.

The signing elicited praise from the Florida Education Association — the teachers union that more often clashes with Republican leadership.

“This $500 million investment in Florida’s teachers is especially meaningful given the current circumstances. It speaks to the deep value of public education to our state’s future,” said union President Fedrick Ingram in a news release. “The decision to leave this investment for Florida’s schools intact is an acknowledgement of the hard work our members do each and every day for Florida’s students.”

DeSantis was surrounded by Democratic and Republican lawmakers when he signed the bill. He said his hope is that it will help the state recruit teachers.

“Obviously, you’re not going to get rich doing it, just like police officers don’t get rich,” DeSantis said. “You do it because you have a servant’s heart, but it sure makes it easier if you have a good minimum salary and are able to make ends meet.”

Republican Sen. Rob Bradley, the budget chief for his chamber, said people questioned whether DeSantis would be able to keep his promise.

“People said, after COVID, this shouldn’t happen. Should we even do this anymore? But today, it’s happening. Promise made, promise kept. The year of the teacher is a reality,” he said at the DeSantis bill signing.

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Principal tests positive for COVID days after graduation

MIAMI (AP) — The principal of a private Catholic high school tested positive for COVID-19 days after participating in a graduation ceremony at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday, school officials said.

Christopher Columbus High School Principal David Pugh tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday, spokeswoman Cristina Cruz told the Miami Herald. She said Pugh’s symptoms, including a “very mild fever” began Saturday evening following the event.

Pugh was tested on Sunday and received results on Wednesday, she said.

The school has been conducting temperature checks for everyone on campus, including Pugh, whose last temperature check was Friday, Cruz said.

“Although he does not have any symptoms now, he may have had the virus on Saturday during the graduation ceremony at the raceway,” Cruz told the Herald in an email.

Cruz said school employees were sent home and anyone who came into contact with Pugh is being asked to quarantine for 14 days, and to get tested.

The all-boys high school hosted graduation at the racetrack as a way of providing 2020 graduates with an in-person but socially distanced ceremony. Graduates stayed in their cars during the ceremony, and pulled up to a tent to receive diplomas through the car window.

Pugh was among the administrators handing diplomas to graduates, Cruz said.

The school was closed on Wednesday and will be sanitized over the next few days before reopening on Monday, Cruz said.

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Florida governor suggests closing schools during elections

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moved to give elections officials across the state some relief, by closing schools so they can be used as polling places, allowing state employees to staff precincts and providing more time to count absentee ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But an executive order issued by the governor on Wednesday fell short of what elections officials had requested two months ago, when they sought more flexibility in conducting the state’s primary in August and the nationally important presidential election in November.

Craig Latimer, president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, said the governor’s executive order was welcome but should have come sooner and delivered more.

“Florida’s 67 Supervisors of Elections submitted recommendations to the governor in April, which were substantially different from the accommodations offered by Governor DeSantis,” said Latimer, who serves as Hillsborough County’s election’s chief.

The officials had asked the governor to allow counties the option of starting voting sooner so they could begin counting absentee ballots earlier — a crucial request, elections officers said, because of the heightened interest in voting by mail to avoid Election Day crowds and exposure to the virus.

In addition, elections officials asked the governor to allow them to consolidate voting places because of the potential scarcity of poll workers to fully staff precincts.

Latimer said elections officials were reviewing the governor’s executive order, which acknowledged some of the state’s current rules could “prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with the COVID-19 emergency.”

The governor’s order encouraged schools to close on Aug. 18, the day of the state’s primary and again on Nov. 3, to allow some campuses to be used as voting sites. He also encouraged teachers and administrators to serve as poll workers.

To further allay concerns about a shortage of poll workers, DeSantis encouraged state workers to staff precincts and said they would be granted administrative leave to do so. The governor asked counties and cities to do the same.

“That might be the biggest possible benefit that comes out of the executive order,” said Mark Earley, the Leon County supervisor of elections.

With staffing an issue because of ongoing worries about the pandemic, elections officials say they will be pushing more Floridians to vote by mail, even as they acknowledged that the state is not prepared to conduct upcoming elections entirely through the postal service.

Local elections officials are trying to head off any Election Day chaos in a state that will be closely watched nationally because of its influence on the country’s balance of power.

Florida officials certainly don’t want to see the long lines and Election Day mishaps that have occurred across the country in primaries, including most recently in Georgia, where vote counts for some races remain incomplete because of the unprecedented volume of absentee ballots.

Florida had its own share of problems during the March 17 presidential preference primary, when some polling places were thrown into disarray because some workers did not show up because of worries about the coronavirus.

The governor’s executive order was relayed to county elections officials in a letter emailed Wednesday by Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a DeSantis appointee.

“I am confident that the solutions will both ease administrative burdens on your offices and provide voters with expanded opportunities for safe and efficient voting,” Lee said.

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App gives Florida grads virtual reality diploma ceremony

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida seniors missing out on the thrill of a live graduation are getting a surprise from their school district thanks an augmented reality app that looks like they are getting their diploma onstage along with a celebratory dance with Flo Rida.

Broward Education Foundation teamed up with ImagineAR to create #2020gradsecret. The app allows graduates to record themselves in their homes appearing to accept diplomas from Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, joining rapper Flo Rida for a congratulatory message or dancing. The videos can be shared instantly on social media.

Flo Rida called the technology “a trip” and said in a statement he was “happy to help these graduates define a new way of celebrating and social interaction as they move on to the next chapter in their young lives.”

Former Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade also joined in on the surprise with a video message for graduates.

The foundation said it wanted to do something special for seniors missing out on ceremonies because of coronavirus lockdowns and had been working on the project for the past six weeks. They said it was hard to keep it a secret for so long.

The experiences is geo-targeted only to Broward County’s more than 18,000 graduates.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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DeSantis expands reading programs after coronavirus shutdown

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a $64 million spending plan Thursday aimed at improving the reading skills of Florida’s poorest performing elementary school students, an achievement gap he believes was exacerbated by the statewide school shutdown from the coronavirus outbreak.

DeSantis also announced a $223 million spending plan that includes using federal money to expand vocational programs at the state’s community colleges, reimburse childcare centers that remained open during the shutdown and assist closed childcare centers with reopening.

The announcements came as the state’s percentage of positive COVID-19 tests continued an upward trend that began Memorial Day, shortly after Florida began reopening.

Standing unmasked and shoulder to shoulder with nine other unmasked officials, DeSantis told a crowd at a Melbourne community center that the reading program will include monthlong summer programs for kindergarten to fifth grade students who have been identified as being poor readers. Money also wil be provided to districts to buy supplemental teaching materials for kindergarten to third grade classes and to train 2,000 reading coaches statewide.

The goal is to have 90% of students be proficient readers by 2024, DeSantis said. The state plans to reopen schools this fall with each county school board setting its own schedule and plan for protecting their employees.

“Getting back on our feet in the school year is going to be really, really important for the well-being of our kids, but I also think it is important for a lot of parents who have had to juggle an awful lot,” DeSantis said. He said the state will work with districts to make sure they have sufficient sanitation supplies and personal protective equipment for their teachers and employees.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said he believes school reopening can be done safely, saying children and teenagers are “at extremely low-risk” to get sick from the virus or spread it.

“We want schools fully open in the fall because there is no better way to teach our kids,” he said.

As of Thursday, Florida had more than 69,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, a one-day jump of almost 1,700, the highest reported in a single day since the state’s first cases were discovered in early March. The state had almost 2,850 coronavirus-related deaths. While some of the increase in cases is due to expanded testing, the percentage of positive tests has grown from 2.3% two weeks ago to more than 4% this week. That mirrors several other states.

The governor’s press office did not immediately return a phone call and email seeking comment on why DeSantis did not wear a mask or practice social distancing at Thursday’s announcement. For the last three months, DeSantis has worn a mask at public appearances except when speaking. Those who joined him on stage stood at least six-feet (two meters) apart.

Meanwhile, the Amateur Athletic Union announced that this summer’s Junior Olympics for promising young U.S. athletes will be held in the Melbourne areas starting in late July.

Also, two more Florida theme parks, SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, opened Thursday with new restrictions. They had been closed since March.

Reservations are now required to enter the parks in order to limit capacity for social distancing. But SeaWorld Orlando will be closed on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Busch Gardens will be closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the foreseeable future for sanitizing.

Visitors age 2 and up will be required to wear masks and everyone will have a temperature screening at the parks’ entrances.

The openings of the parks owned by SeaWorld Entertainment come as Florida’s theme parks industry is coming back to life. Universal Orlando Resort reopened last week after being closed since March, and Walt Disney World theme parks will be welcoming back visitors next month.

Bars, movie theaters and other entertainment venues in Florida were allowed to reopen last week with restrictions, and restaurants and shops have been back open for weeks with limits on capacity. Those business re-openings have allowed some workers to go back to work and that was reflected Thursday in a U.S. Department of Labor report that showed more than 110,000 Floridians filed for new jobless claims last week, down from more than 207,000 claims in the previous week.

SeaWorld Entertainment, which operates 12 theme parks across the U.S., said it was losing $25 million a month and was forced to furlough 95% of its workforce with its parks idled. Before the parks closed in March, the company was off to a strong start to 2020 with record-setting attendance and revenue in January and February, according to its quarterly financial report.

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Schneider reported from Orlando.

Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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Florida educators want staggered school schedules amid virus

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s largest association of educators called Tuesday for changing how schools operate in the era of the coronavirus — including staggering school schedules, suspending active-shooting drills and imposing social distancing rules on buses and campuses.

The discussions come amid preparations for the state’s 2.9 million public schoolchildren to return this fall after being shut out of classrooms nearly three months ago by the pandemic.

In a 17-page document released Tuesday, the Florida Education Association called on the Department of Education to suspend standardized tests for students and key performance evaluations for teachers and schools — proposals that are sure to garner skepticism among adherents of accountability metrics.

The plan also called on schools to test students for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and put procedures in place to isolate infected students to prevent the virus from spreading across campus. The association suggested that some distance learning may be required to ease the strain on schools under pressure to keep staff and students healthy.

“As we reopen our schools, let us be safe. Let us be healthy. Let us understand academic success,” Fed Ingram, the president of the education group, said during a virtual press conference.

The 145,000-member association includes unions representing teachers, classroom aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and administrative staff at public K-12 campuses.

The summer months provides scant time for schools to prepare, as they consider how to put in place social distancing guidelines in classrooms, cafeterias and other campus facilities.

The state Department of Education has yet to release its own school reopening plan that could serve as a blueprint for the state’s 4,000 public schools as they make plans to reopen. A spokesperson for the department said there was no immediate time frame when one would be released, and it will be another month before the state school board reconvenes for its next meeting in July.

The department’s spokesperson, Taryn Fenske, said state officials will review the association’s proposals, noting the department agrees with the objective of “opening schools safely and closing achievement gaps that have likely been exacerbated by this crisis.”

Fenske added that the state’s economic recovery partly depends on schools reopening. “That is why it’s critical to take a step-by-step, phased-in, approach to reopening Florida’s schools,” Fenske said.

State officials shuttered classrooms in March, as COVID-19 cases surged and public health officials worked to contain the outbreak. Classes conducted classes virtually to help limit the spread of the virus. At the same time, those classes also exposed shortcomings, including the lack of access to computers and the Internet among poor families, as well as other challenges in educating children who were already struggling in traditional classrooms.

“As Florida’s public schools look at reopening, we have a significant advantage that we did not have when they were closed: Time. We must use the time between now and the fall to create plans which ensure not only that reopening be safe but that recognize the closing of school campuses had a disparate impact on Florida’s neediest students,” the association said in its report.

The document was drafted by a couple dozen educators, parents, community activists and mostly Democratic elected officials. But it lacked many specifics, including details on how school schedules could be staggered to reduce class sizes.

Ingram said the recommendations and were meant to be used as broad guidelines that could be adapted to the needs of individual districts, if not schools.

However, the plan urged schools to sanitize facilities daily and reconfigure classrooms to limit contact and crowding among students. It suggests that teachers move from classroom to classroom instead of having crowds of students clogging hallways while switching from one classroom to another.

The association wants schools to temporarily do away with emergency drills, including fire and active-shooter drills, to minimize disruptions and to keep students from having to gather in large groups.

It would also incorporate distance learning into a hybrid schedule and called on state officials to issue waivers to allow school districts the flexibility to change classroom hours and the length of the school year.

Last month, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents also issued its own set of recommendations, including reducing student-teacher ratios and daily health monitoring. It also called for establishing pandemic response teams.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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Homeless Florida teen graduates as high school valedictorian

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Despite homelessness, one teen in Florida has crowned himself an overcomer: he served as class president throughout his high school career is graduating as the valedictorian.

“It’s been a rocky road, a lot of hardships,” Martin Folsom, a student at A. Philip Randolph Career Academies in Jacksonville, said in a video posted online by Duval County Public Schools. “But seeing myself now about to graduate, about to go to college – it feels good knowing all the stuff I’ve done was worth it.”

In the video, watched thousands of times since it posted two weeks ago, Folsom expressed appreciation for people who helped him and his mother in their battle with homelessness since 2012.

Eight years after he went to his first homeless shelter. Learning that he would graduate at the top of his class “gave me a jolt in my chest,” Folsom told Action News Jax.

He plans to attend Valdosta State University in Georgia this fall, and hopes to work for the FBI after college, the television station reported.

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