When they met in February, leaders of the Pasco and Hernando school districts and Pasco-Hernando Community College shared common concerns about the rising cost of dual enrollment courses.
They planned to work jointly for a solution.
Fast forward six months, and the sides are completely at odds over the credit-bearing college courses for high school students. The dispute centers on administrative fees that PHCC wants to charge the districts, in conjunction with legislation that shifted funding for the program from the colleges to school districts.
"I am not happy and I am frustrated," Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said Thursday, two days after launching into a spirited public attack of PHCC's proposal during a School Board meeting.
Browning said he accepted that the district would have to pay tuition of $73.20 per credit hour for the courses, as new state law requires. He set aside about $490,000 in the budget for the last-minute expense.
But he balked at the college's request for the district to pay tuition for summer dual enrollment courses — something the Florida Department of Education advised was not appropriate. And he said it "stuck in my craw" that the college would ask for an administrative fee of $37.73 per student per semester for those students taking dual enrollment courses at district high schools with district teachers.
"I want to know what it's costing the college . . . for my kids to take my dual enrollment courses on my campuses with my teachers," Browning said. "I don't get it."
The Hernando district, which received the same proposal from PHCC, is also upset, said Ken Pritz, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.
"We've already challenged them on that," he said. "We contacted them and said we weren't happy."
Hernando has asked PHCC to re-examine the proposal.
Burt Harres, the college's vice president of instruction, said PHCC is not requesting the funds for its approximately 2,150 dual enrollment students because it wants to. Rather, he said, it is following the law as closely as it can.
It reads: "School districts should share funding to cover instructional and support costs incurred by the postsecondary institution."
Harres explained that college officials took a close look at the costs PHCC incurs to operate dual enrollment, and then set a fee to cover those. In the past, he noted, colleges have eaten those expenses, which include registration, record keeping and providing transcripts.
"The legislation was passed late in the session, so obviously the school system was working on their budget before this was passed," Harres said. "It's not our intent to add to that burden. But we have to comply with that statute."
St. Petersburg College came up with a very different solution to the same law when dealing with the Pinellas school district.
SPC president Bill Law said he operated under the premise that dual enrollment must remain healthy, without damaging either the college or the school district.
"We need money to run the school," Law said. "But to squeeze our school district friends seemed not to me to be the appropriate response."
Instead, SPC put forth a "full cost model" looking not only at what the college spent on dual enrollment, but also at the district's costs. After consultation with district officials, the college decided it would send a bill to the district for tuition, but also send a check to the district to pay for the costs that the district had covered previously for things such as counseling and space.
"It turned out to be a little bit of cost shifting," Law said, adding that he believed the plan fully complies with the statute.
The fact that colleges in neighboring counties could arrive at such varied interpretations of the law captured the attention of Sen. John Legg, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
"We're seeing lots of application issues with dual enrollment," Legg said. "The whole issue of dual enrollment is not being equitably applied statewide."
He's got his staff working on the topic, to see if there's a problem with the law as written. Legg said he intended to address the funding during the next legislative session, as well as the entire system of transitions from high school into college and career.
"We have a hodge-podge of well-intended policies that are not well reviewed or put together in a systemic way," he said. "We're going to be exploring that. Part will be looking at dual enrollment."
District officials have raised some legitimate concerns, Legg said, and they deserve clarity.
Browning said he spoke with PHCC president Kathy Johnson on Thursday.
"She is the one who said, 'Let's sit together and let's talk about what we need to do,' " he said.
He welcomed the opportunity, noting that no one wants poor relations between the schools and the college. But he stressed that he remains displeased, and he wants a solution that makes some sense.
"The last thing I want to do is spend money we don't have," Browning said, "on something I don't think is justified."
The disagreement will not affect students, who will be able to continue to enroll and attend courses while the sides resolve their differences.
Staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this story. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.