A weekend interview with ...
... Heather Fiorentino, Pasco County schools superintendent. Fiorentino, also a former state lawmaker, talked with reporter Jeff Solochek about the fallout from the recently ended Florida legislative session.
Are there any things that come out of Tallahassee that you think are good?
If we get the $10-million for concurrency, that would be a positive thing. Because as we continue to grow and we need to build schools, that will assist us in building roads around schools and prevent the county and the school district, who are both being hit by the financial impacts, from fighting over who's fighting for what there.
A lot of people like the changes that they rolled all into one bill that dealt with the grading changes and the FCAT. (SB 1908) Do you see anything that's good in there?
One of the things that I've learned is that you also have to wait for the DOE to get done. Because the intent of the Legislature and what the DOE puts into rule sometimes is a little mixed. What you think is going to come out isn't quite the same. So I'll kind of wait until the rules come down. Because that will have a big impact on how it affects us.
The one thing that I have a little concern over is the NRT (norm-referenced test), getting rid of the NRT. I understand making it 50 percent of the grade. I think if we can move away from the FCAT, because there's so many wonderful things going on in the schools, that's important to know without having it based on just one test in a snapshot in time. Everyone wants accountability. There's nothing wrong with accountability as long as it's fair. But removing the NRT, I have concerns over that. And the reason is, because it says currently 33 percent is the FCAT score at the secondary level. But when you look at our high school kids compared to the rest of the nation, we're in the 70s. ... There's a real misalignment there. There had to be a better alignment. And I'm not sure a better alignment is getting rid of the NRT.
The one bill that sort of brought out a lot of controversy was the PE bill. (SB 610) A lot of it had to do with the middle schools. But another part of it had to do with the fact that they want the 30 minutes to be consecutive at the elementary level.
That is a big concern.
Then the debate seemed to roll out into the whole idea that we need a longer school day. I was wondering if you could talk about that. I know there's not a lot of money, necessarily. But do we need a longer school day?
We're going to need something. The mandates - and this was something I dealt with when I was in the Legislature - we have to teach Black Heritage Month. We have to teach Veterans Day. We have to teach the Constitution. We have to recite a portion of the Preamble. There are all of these things that we have to do by law, and there are only so many minutes in the day. And now adding 30 minutes to that. Children also need the time for a 90-minute reading block. You have a 30-minute P.E. block. You have so many minutes for math. It all adds up. We are running out of minutes in the day to do everything and continue to have a well-rounded child. And I think it's important that we have music and art in the classroom, and that children have the ability to take band and different programs to see talents of a child. They need to be able to touch on all these things.
The biggest item coming out of Tallahassee had to be the budget, though.
And it doesn't seem like anybody even knows where the bottom is right now. How do schools deal with that, knowing that the bottom maybe isn't in sight, and like you've always said, you want to protect the classroom, protect jobs. Where is there room to do much when the budget gets smaller?
There isn't very much room. There have been a lot of cuts in the past that have never been reinstated.
Driver's ed coming back. Fully implementing all of the sports. Fully implementing the EMC (Energy Management Center). We have brought back the EMC but it is a limited amount, not as full as it was. Different things like that, that we've done.
So it's made it more difficult to have cost savings. And I understand that when the constitutional amendment was passed for class size, that put a lot of extra dollars into it. Now Pasco has been fortunate because we've always been closer to class size than most other school districts. Because we've always worked for that. That's been one of our goals. The problem is, from the Legislature's standpoint, they're paying out a lot of money and it's very difficult to keep up in bad economic times.
We will tighten our belts and we will do what we need to do. We've been very frugal since we've gotten here. To my fault, if you will, maybe we've given out too big of raised when we had the money. But I thought that and still believe that it was the right thing to do and I'm glad we did. Maybe we should have built up a bigger fund balance. But teacher salaries in Pasco really needed to be competitive. So we gave out the biggest raises we could at the time.
You're not planning to take them back?
Not at this time.
One of the ideas that got floated in the Legislature and failed, and then it came back at the TBRC, was the 65 percent solution. Does that cause even further angst for a school district when money is being scaled back?
It doesn't for our district. We have always tried to put the most money in (the classroom). I have been to other districts where they have said, 'We brought down our costs.' They had an overhead in the 20s and brought it down to 14 percent for administrative costs. We're at 3.02 percent. I mean, I can't bring that down anymore. But we will continue to freeze positions, continue to have a six-week hold on filling jobs, you know, those that we can. There are a few that come up every once in a while that we can't hold off on. But some we can, and we will do that.
Will the school district take a position on the tax swap and some of the other ideas that are coming out that will affect directly school funding, including the 65 percent solution? Because I know you're already talking about your concerns about what's there now.
Right. Well, as things come out, I always like to wait to hear the story. We try to be fair. Even when Amendment 1 came out, just be informative and let people know how we thought it would affect us.
Did Amendment 1 have any effects on the school district that are being exacerbated by the tight budget times? Or is it too soon to tell?
We will know more in July when (property appraiser) Mike Wells is able to produce those (tax roll) numbers for us. Then we will know what the cuts will be.
Do you know yet whether the school district can raise its property tax rate to meet the required local effort if the property values come in lower than expected?
In the past what has happened it the Legislature is the one that sets it for us. DOE has to finalize everything and we get those numbers in July. So we're hoping in July we will know exactly what those numbers are. We're not sure. Because we believe the numbers that the Legislature was using were not the most accurate numbers to where we will be in July. That could cause us some difficulty.
So there could be more cutting or higher taxes?
That would be my assumption at this point.