Friday, September 21, 2018

Pinellas: Tallahassee’s proposed budget would leave $6-8 million deficit

Count Pinellas County school district superintendent Mike Grego as another school official feeling shortchanged by education funding proposed by the Florida Legislature.

Grego penned a letter on Saturday to locally elected officials and community members urging them to "make public education a priority" and contact their elected officials to vote no on the proposed budget. Despite his and similar calls to action by Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning and Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho, the $89 billion budget passed in the House 95 to 12, and the Senate, 31 to 5 in a rare overtime session on Sunday.

Grego and the Pinellas County School Board supported Gov. Rick Scott's $500 million school safety plan. But the education budget that now goes before Scott for consideration leaves mainly larger districts with less funding than what they say is needed for school safety measures and a negligible increase in funding to cover inflation costs.

According to a state survey, Pinellas asked for $3.5 million to double the amount of school resource officers from 60 to 120 to staff an officer in every school. The district already spends $6.8 million on school safety measures – with all but $1 million spent on safety personnel –  yet Safe School funding covers less than half of those expenses.

Grego said Monday that despite more money allocated to districts, Pinellas has estimated that placing a school resource officer in every school will cost the district about $6 million to $8 million, which could more than double the district's current deficit in safe schools funding.

"And that's conservative," he said. "It doesn't count for supplies, cars, training, supervision. There's a lot of costs in just putting an SRO in a school."

Pinellas and other large school districts such as Broward, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough most likely won't be able to dip into into their general operating funds to cover costs as in the past. Under the proposed budget, those larger districts will receive funding increases that are significantly less than the state average of $101.50.

Pinellas is slated to only receive an increase of 47 cents per student, roughly $46,500 in total, in base student allocation funds which have no strings attached. The district would use that money for inflation and increased cost of business, including a 7 percent increase in electricity bills, a 4 to 6 percent increase in health care costs and a state-mandated $1.8 million increase for the Florida Retirement System.

Why the paltry increase? Legislators this session changed the way the state accounts for cost of living adjustments in each district, and in an effort to bridge the gap for smaller and more rural counties,  may have tipped the scale against wealthier, usually larger counties.

Grego said he doesn't know where he would get funding to plug the $6 million deficit, but said he wouldn't turn to arming school staff as a cheaper alternative. He said he wouldn't pull out of his promise to staff a trained law enforcement officer in every school either.

"It tends to come out of the classroom and that was what we're trying to avoid," he said.

Beginning Tuesday, Grego said the district will ask Scott to repeal the education portion of the budget.

"At this point, we just need to really ask the governor to take a look at the original commitment, (which was) to hold the school district harmless in the funding," he said.

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