Sunday, August 19, 2018
Education

The Legislature raised funding by 47 cents per student. Here’s how Florida schools are coping.

Forty-seven cents.

That amount — less than the cost of a postage stamp — is how much Florida lawmakers increased general education funding per student for the coming year. School district officials instantly declared the budget a crisis, and pleaded with lawmakers (unsuccessfully) for a special session to reshuffle the dollars.

Otherwise, they insisted, public schools would struggle to do the daily work that parents and children depend upon.

Weeks later, as officials across the state crunch the numbers, the impact is becoming real, with reductions as high as $54 million in one district. Among the proposals to make ends meet, school boards are considering:

• Allowing larger class sizes (Polk)

• Ending courtesy bus rides (Duval)

• Eliminating teaching and support positions (Levy)

• Cutting gifted programs (Santa Rosa)

Several districts have discussed asking voters to increase sales and property taxes to help cover revenue gaps. Teacher and staff raises appear out of the question for even the least affected school systems.

"It has become increasingly difficult to provide the level of service with the dwindling resources and unfunded mandates," such as required security enhancements, said Martin County superintendent Laurie Gaylord.

RELATED: Gradebook podcast — Wage war in Hillsborough County, the nation’s eighth-largest school district

Martin has planned two new tax referendums, while also looking into slashing jobs and arts programs, and outsourcing custodial and technology work.

Not all districts face the same scenario.

Monroe County, for example, gets only about 10 percent of its money from the state. As a result, superintendent Mark Porter said, the financial outcome there "is not great," but it’s also not as bad as elsewhere.

"I cannot identify any pending cuts in our budget or our programs," Porter said.

One county to the north, though, the concerns loom large.

Miami-Dade, the state’s largest school district by enrollment, projects a total funding decline of 0.11 percent after taking into account new state mandates and an expected student decrease.

Ron Steiger, the district’s chief finance officer, predicted a spending plan that won’t see dramatic changes, but also won’t account for the rising cost of living in one of the Sunshine State’s most expensive areas.

"In a district our size, if we need to cut substantial amounts of money, the only place to go is avoiding cost increases, which we are attempting to do, or going to the classroom, which we don’t want to do," Steiger said.

That means little money for raises: "You can’t give an increase larger than what you get."

Officials have heard calls to not bend to union demands, he noted. But the issue isn’t about union pressure, Steiger said.

"It’s the need to have teachers," he explained. "We have to pay market rate to have teachers, not substitutes. … It’s an issue of, how are we going to be able to fill all our classrooms?"

In some instances, the issue goes to maintaining desired employment levels.

Levy County superintendent Jeffery Edison said his district is losing eight teaching and two administrative jobs, "on top of not adding the additional support staff we feel we need to properly staff our schools."

Some districts, meanwhile, are reviewing how to better allocate the people they have.

Duval County, for one, has proposed changing its teacher assignment formula so that any need of less than a half-time position is rounded down to none, rather than up to one. Officials estimate the district would save up to $8.2 million with that move, which is part of a larger package of cuts.

Hillsborough County leaders are looking at a similar concept as they cope with rising expenses, new mandates and past spending overages by the district.

"We’re really living by our formulas," chief business officer Gretchen Saunders said.

It’s not always easy, she said, because sometimes individual schools have greater demands than the budget model might allow. While there’s not much wiggle room, she added, the district leaves room for some "adjusting" based on need.

Planning requires that give and take, many district leaders agreed. As most discretionary increases are claimed by rising costs such as insurance, Bay County schools are insisting any proposed spending additions must be paired with an equal cut, financial services manager James Loyed said.

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

Choices are key, suggested Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend. His district looks likely to have sufficient funding for the year, thanks largely to growth and changes in the state funding formula that benefited Polk more than any other county.

But the board also has to do things like keep its reserves lower than recommended, and not fill jobs when employees leave.

"I think we can status quo to the end of the year," Townsend said, also predicting that raises are not likely.

Many districts still have not identified the areas they plan to attack. Pasco County, where growth has eased the financial hit, is watching to see if its anticipated deficit to pay for more school security will be covered by state or federal funds that remain potentially available.

But the questions of how the schools will cope remain across Florida.

"I don’t blame the district," said Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo, who has heard talk of staffing changes but is still waiting for data. "This is what the state gives them instead of funding."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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