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Majority Of Florida Schools Pass On State Funded Debit Cards

Steven Depolo

TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — Nearly 20 percent of Florida’s teachers returning to the classroom are expected to receive debit cards from the state loaded with $250 that can be spent --- free of sales tax --- any time throughout the school year on supplies. 

Gov. Rick Scott, who has touted the debit cards as he talks about education issues across the state, continues to hope more teachers will benefit from them. But as of Tuesday, more than 130,000 teachers in Florida are not in line to get one of the Chase debit cards this year.

"We just got this started July 31, so school districts are just starting to look into this," Scott said Tuesday. "It's exciting that seven (counties) have already agreed to do it."

The big reason that many districts have not agreed is that the card was introduced after many teachers had started to dip into their own pockets to buy school supplies with the anticipation they would later be reimbursed by check, just as they have been in past years.

"I guess if it came out early enough that could be something we'd do, but it just happened the last two, three years, counting this year, that it's just easier to give them the check," said Tanya Arja, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County school district.

The Hillsborough district intends to reimburse its nearly 15,000 teachers through checks that will also be worth $250, the same as the district did last year when the total was about $170 per teacher in Florida, Arja said.

Most other districts are following suit.

The Florida Teacher Classroom Supply Assistance Program debit card was rolled out just prior to the three-day statewide back-to-school sales tax holiday.

Unlike the sales tax holiday, the card includes a state ID number that allows sales-tax free purchases throughout the fiscal year.

Scott said the card was requested by a number of teachers during an educational "listening tour" across the state that he undertook as the 2012-2013 school year was getting underway.

"It's an easier way to do it, so it's good for our teachers," Scott said of the debit card.

The card cannot be refilled to further extend the tax-free benefit.

The use of the card was left up to each county school district to accept as part of a $480 million boost for public school teachers that was pushed by Scott and included in the budget in the past legislative session.

Teachers in seven counties will get the card, including two of the state’s largest districts, Miami-Dade and Orange, which combined had more than 32,000 teachers during the past school year.

Hamilton, Hendry, Jefferson, Levy and Lafayette, five counties that combined had fewer than 1,000 teachers in the past school year, are the other counties that have agreed to distribute the card. Lafayette joined the program Tuesday.

There are 60 other counties in Florida and some of the biggest, including Palm Beach, Broward, Hillsborough and Duval, won't use the card this year.

With 12,898 teachers returning to the classroom in Palm Beach County this week, 1,101 more than during the 2012-2013 school year, district spokesman Jason Shockley said there was a little concern over the "lack of notice" with the debit cards.

Palm Beach County teachers will receive a check by the end of September for reimbursement of supplies, Shockley said.

"We are currently working out our plan as to how we will distribute out dollars to teachers, but we will not be going with the debit card option," added Marsha Oliver, spokeswoman for the Duval County school district.

Oliver initially said she was not aware that districts had an option to use the cards.

Scott included plans for the debit card as part of his education agenda during the spring.

The state couldn't begin the process of having companies bid on providing the cards until the current fiscal year started July 1.

"It went through a competitive process, so it took some time," Scott said.

Both Shockley and Oliver said their districts would consider planning for the debit card next year if it's available.

Scott said he intends to push for the card to be made available again in 2014.