Friday, September 21, 2018

Florida school superintendents ask for a special legislative session on education funding

Claiming the Legislature under-funded their operational budgets for the coming year, Florida's school superintendents called on Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday to hold a special session aimed at putting more money into the K-12 system.

"We are grateful the state stepped up … to pass a school safety bill," said Broward County superintendent Robert Runcie, whose district suffered Florida's most deadly school shooting in February. "However, that I believe is being done at the expense of our core business."

A spokesman for Scott said the governor is satisfied with the state's education spending plan.

"In this year's budget, K-12 public schools are provided hundreds of millions of dollars and the flexibility needed to make each school safer while still increasing Florida's per-pupil funding to a record high. Since Governor Scott has taken office, total operational funding for Florida schools is up 27 percent, while the amount of flexible funding to school districts has grown by 21 percent. Student enrollment has only grown seven percent in the same amount of time," said McKinley Lewis, deputy communications director.

"The Governor has been clear – the number one priority right now is making our schools safer, and he's glad that the Legislature provided funding for that specific reason."

Legislative leaders scoffed at the idea of a special session, as well.

Senate President Joe Negron said none is needed.

"The budget approved by the Legislature on Sunday makes an unprecedented investment in K-12 education, including a more than $100 increase in per-student funding," Negron said. "The funding formula approved by the Legislature directs schools districts to utilize some of the increase in funding to prioritize school safety and mental health. In the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School just one month ago, providing key resources school districts need to keep our children safe is a priority of the Senate."

Senate Education Appropriations chairwoman Kathleen Passidomo agreed.

"Everything changed after Feb. 14," she said, referring to the school massacre. "After Feb. 14, we had to put $400 million into school safety. We had to do that."

Passidomo said she understood superintendents' concerns, "but when you're talking about the safety of our students, that's our No. 1 priority right now. If school districts have to reduce administrative costs, I get that."

Runcie, president of the state superintendents association, and several other district leaders said they shouldn't have to choose between safety and education.

They have loudly criticized lawmakers for setting a base student allocation — the unrestricted money schools use to pay for their general operations — only 47 cents higher than the year before, while restricting the use of other added funds to items such as school resource officers.

They noted that Scott proposed increasing that amount by $152 when he presented his education budget in November.

"There basically is no new money available to districts to pay teachers any type of salary adjustment, to introduce and expand effective education programs," not to mention cover rising costs of retirement benefits, utilities and other expenses, Runcie said.

Compounding the situation, Runcie said, the Legislature altered its overall per-student funding formula so that many of the state's largest districts, serving the most students, saw a decrease.

"So we start off with a deficit of several million dollars, based on what has been done," Runcie said.

Related coverage: Pinellas: Tallahassee's proposed budget would leave $6-8 million deficit

Some of the district leaders urged Scott to veto the funding program (FEFP) and require lawmakers to start over. Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning had such a request hand delivered to the governor's office on Wednesday.

"Thank you for your efforts to truly increase per student funding," wrote Browning, a one-time Scott secretary of state and the superintendent association vice president. "Please use your authority as governor to force the Legislature to adequately fund public school operations by vetoing the FEFP and calling the Legislature back for a special session to provide us with an operating budget that both enhances school safety and provides the funding necessary to educate Florida's public school children."

If Scott vetoed the entire public school budget and demanded that the Legislature to it over, it wouldn't be the first time. He did it last year, forcing lawmakers to boost per-pupil funding. It was the first time that happened in Florida in about 35 years.

Scott could face a backlash on several fronts if he rejects the superintendents' request. He also would be handing a major political victory to his likely U.S. Senate rival, Democrat Bill Nelson.

The superintendents' request comes four weeks after the horrific slaughter at a Broward County high school that took the lives of 14 students and three teachers. The leader of the statewide superintendents' association is Broward County's Runcie.

The term-limited governor has struggled during his seven years in office to be viewed as an ally of public education. In his first year in office, he proposed a 10 percent across the board pay cut for public schools that Republican legislators said was ill-advised.

Scott later championed a $2,500 pay raise for public school teachers, but the raises were negotiated at smaller amounts in many of the state's 67 school districts, and Florida teacher salaries continue to languish below the national average.

Last year, Scott signed a controversial bill (HB 7069) that expanded charter schools and increased charter school spending at the expense of public schools. Several Florida districts have challenged the law in court.

Passidomo, meanwhile, wondered how the Legislature would be able to meet the superintendents' request.

"My question to the superintendents is, where do you propose that the funds will come from?" she said, observing education already takes up about half of the state budget.

Runcie said Scott and others had told him that the state has plenty of additional money coming into its coffers.

"This is a matter of prioritization," he said. "You make a decision whether you're going to prioritize kids' education or not. … There is an opportunity now for our governor to step up and send it back to them and tell them to do their job."

With Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet.

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