A weekend interview with ...
... state Rep. Joe Pickens, the Palatka Republican who chairs the House Schools and Learning Council. Pickens has been the attorney for the Putnam County School Board, and served on the Putnam County School Readiness Coalition. First elected in 2000, he contemplated applying for the education commissioner job, but decided to keep his leadership position in the House. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about school funding issues.
Q: The school districts are concerned that they have to cut what amounts to 4 percent, and one of the things they're doing is meeting with people in Tallahassee to see exactly what that means. What do you see as coming forward? Do school districts really have to bite the bullet, and can they?
A: Well, I think that everyone is going to have to tighten their belts, and not just school districts. The shortfall in revenue, the $1-billion everybody has been hearing about ... is across the board. It's recurring general revenue. So it isn't just education that is going to be impacted by the shortfall.
It is, however, correct, that education is a large part of the general revenue budget. ... So that is where the most significant reductions are available. On the other hand, the Legislature recognizes its significant obligation to fund public education. I think in the days leading up to the special session, should we have one and I think we will, and then during the special session our job will be to balance that as much as we can.
But I think it is fair to say that K-12 should be anticipating at least a reduction in the increase that they got in this year's budget. To them I'm sure that that's a cut, and it is based upon the fact that they had a budget that they could see and touch and feel and read and know what it says they're going to get. ... In higher ed, colleges and universities have already been advised to plan to reduce their budgets by 4 percent.
Q: Higher ed can cut back its enrollment, for instance. K-12 doesn't have that option.
A: K-12 does not have the option of capping enrollment. That's correct. They have to take students that come to them. That just means they have to make reductions from other places, where it's non-essential hiring freezes - that's out of the classroom, less expenditures on things that don't involve the classroom. Those types of things. As a school board attorney for 17 years, we went through a couple of times where we had to roll back. They'll do it where ever it is they think they can most afford it. I think you'll find that the Legislature affords them that latitude.
We're not going to say, 'We're cutting here, we're cutting here, we're reducing here.' We're saying, 'The reduction is X,' and each individual school district is able to, within certain parameters, decide where to make those reductions.
Q: One thing I've heard come up is the teacher performance pay plan. It's about $150-million that has been allocated, and I've heard several district officials say that it should be cut, or temporarily canceled, and the money should be put toward the reduction. Would that be a possibility?
A: I had that discussion with Dr. Blanton (of the Florida School Boards Association) and with Joy Frank (of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents) and with the union. And it is unlikely that the Legislature is going to say we're going to wipe out this very important program until next year. I think you will find that the prevailing sentiment ... is when reductions are required, it doesn't send the right message to say the first place we're going to look to cut is your highest performing teachers. Or, in the school recognition money, the first place we're going to look to cut is your highest performing schools.
That sends the wrong message and creates the wrong culture, that when cuts come mediocrity is the first to survive and excellence is the first to be reduced.
Q: I guess I was hearing more that it was new money that hadn't been spent yet, so why not not spend it?
A: I understand that's their position. I actually reached out to those stakeholders to start the dialogue. ... I understand their position is, if you take this money away you will not affect their operating budgets. That is an argument that I expected them to make. But I think the response is going to be that these programs are very important and we are going to maintain them and we are not going to cut excellence or reward mediocrity at the expense of excellence.
Q: Is there any place you can see being cut?
A: I don't think we are going to direct where the districts should make their reductions. Districts are very different. They have different fund balances, they have different flexibilities, they have different contractual obligations relative to their collective bargaining agreements. ...
Q: Do you see how the concerns are coming up over the tax proposals that are supposed to be coming to voters? Do you see how that might concern the school districts? And how do you respond?
A: I responded to them in the special session, I thought, very candidly. Yes, if the constitutional amendment passes it will result in a reduction of about $1.6-billion in the current income stream that partially funds K-12. ... That's a big number to come up with in recurring dollars in any budget year, but especially in a budget year like the we are all now clearly expecting and anticipating next year.
So I have stated in the special session and now that it will be a very difficult task for the Legislature to come up with that much additional recurring money for the public school system unless the Legislature identifies and utilizes a new funding source. And so far, we have not done that. I think (House Policy and Budget Council) Chairman (Ray) Sansom accurately stated that that's an issue we will have to deal with and will when we take up the budget like we do every year.
Q: Then why would voters vote for this, if they don't know where the money is coming from?
A: Voters, when they go to the polls, they're going to vote based on what their priorities are. If voters' priorities are a reduction in their homestead property taxes, or an ability to have some level of portability ... then they're going to cast their vote based upon those priorities.
Some may vote no because of what they hear the impact might be to public education. Some might vote no because of what they hear might be the impact to local government and the services they are able to provide to residents. Some may vote no for other reasons. And many others are going to vote yes because their higher priority is to avail themselves of the benefits of the constitutional amendment that they would have and that they believe local governments can provide a reasonable level of services even with the reduction in revenues that would result to them, and they do believe that the Legislature will fund education as the Legislature always has.
Every year, whether it's a good year or a bad year, the Legislature has always made the adequate funding of public education a priority. It's a constitutional obligation that the Legislature has always met. And as Chairman Sansom has said, it's an obligation that we will meet going forward in the next session as well.