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Hernando schools to tackle state funding levels

BROOKSVILLE — If Hernando County schools received as much money per student as schools in Citrus County, the system's coffers would swell by roughly $4.7 million this year alone.

It would receive an additional $6.2 million if its funding matched that of its neighbor to the south, Pasco County. The budget would grow by $4.6 million if it was funded at the same level as Sumter County.

And if it received the state average, Hernando would see an extra $4.3 million.

For years, Hernando school officials have complained about this apparent financial disparity.

Now they want to take action.

Board members in recent weeks are breathing new life into an effort to increase funding and challenge parts of the state's complex funding formula, the Florida Education Finance Program or FEFP.

It's a huge climb — and the district is taking baby steps.

At Tuesday's workshop, board members directed the district to look into ramping up its lobbying efforts in Tallahassee for the upcoming legislative session. They were divided on whether to hire their own lobbyist or join forces with the teachers union.

"It needs to be adjusted," said School Board member John Sweeney. "It's going to take a lot of political will and political resolve up in Tallahassee."

Created in 1973 by the Florida Legislature, the Education Finance Program attempts to provide equitable funding for every student in the state. It takes a wide variety of factors into account, including the differences in local property values, varying educational program costs, the cost of living in a given county and the sparsity of its student population.

The Hernando School District routinely is among the lowest counties in Florida in total funding per student.

For the most recent 2013-14 funding calculation, Hernando received $6,590 per head. That's roughly $283 per student less than Pasco County, $216 less than Citrus County, $210 less than Sumter County. It's also $197 below the state average.

This is nothing new.

A review of per student funding since the 2000-01 school year also showed that Hernando was financed at a lower level than surrounding counties and the state average.

"Wherever you fall on the formula, you tend to remain," Sweeney said. "The top districts remain at the top, the lower districts remain at the bottom. There's no adjustment or circulation."

Hernando district officials have identified several areas in the funding formula that hurt them.

The biggest factor: property values.

Though this money comes from the county, the local tax rates are capped by the state. And the district believes that the statewide funding formula doesn't adequately compensate for Hernando's low real estate values, which limit the amount it can raise through property taxes.

Joe Vitalo, the former president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, said the formula's reliance on local property taxes increases the funding disparity between counties.

"The state is rewarding those districts that are property rich," he said. "Those districts that are needing state assistance to make up for the low property values are behind."

"We are way behind," he added.

Vitalo said it should be up to the state to make up the difference and close that gap.

Roughly 70 percent of Hernando's funding came from the state while about 30 percent came from local funding sources. Citrus was almost the opposite, with 61 percent coming from local sources and only 39 percent from the state.

The district is also hurt by its enrollment level — which is hovering around 22,000 students.

An allotment known as a sparsity supplement goes to districts with fewer than 20,000 students. The idea is to offset the higher per-student costs faced by smaller districts.

"Because we're just over the number of students, we don't qualify for sparsity, so we're in the worst possible position," said superintendent Lori Romano.

But Hernando also misses out on a cost-of-living adjustments typically received by larger, more urban districts. It's one reason Hernando's per student funding is lower than districts such as Pasco and Hillsborough.

The component of the formula effectively takes money from small districts and gives it to more urban school districts, said George Gall, the district's chief financial officer.

"It is a reverse Robin Hood philosophy and takes from the poor and gives to the rich," he wrote in a presentation to the district.

Mark Eggers, chief of school business services for the Florida Department of Education, cautioned against comparing funding between districts and said the state's funding formula has withstood the test of time — and legal challenges.

He noted that it's a contentious issue and has been looked at by the legislature in the past. While a few components have changed, it has substantially remained the same.

"It's been held up as a national model," he said.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

Total funds per student for 2013-14

Hernando County$6,590
Citrus County$6,806
Pasco County$6,872
Sumter County$6,800
Florida average$6,787

Source: Florida Department of Education, 2013-14 FEFP second calculation

Hernando schools to tackle state funding levels 12/13/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 13, 2013 7:12pm]
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