Teacher pay and school security topped the list of concerns for Florida Board of Education members Wednesday as they kicked off their annual legislative budget request process.
Though they wondered where they might find the money for any added expenses, board members stressed the need to increase teacher salaries to keep them in the schools and fight back a growing shortage. They also noted the importance of meeting the full price tag schools face as they work to become more secure, as mandated after the February school shooting in Parkland.
The actual numbers seemed elusive, several on the board observed. They asked for more detailed information, so they could home in on a figure to ask lawmakers to target.
And then they should get out of the districts' way, and let them make decisions, they suggested.
"Flexibility is something we should have for districts," said vice chairman Andy Tuck, a former Highlands County School Board member.
One area for such flexibility might come in how districts spend the money allocated for armed school patrols. Sumter County superintendent Richard Shirley, president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, asked the board to consider recommending that the separate pots of money for resource officers and guardians be pooled together, for districts to spend according to their needs.
Some districts refused to employ guards, preferring trained law enforcement officers instead. Yet they could not tap into the money specified for guards, and many sheriffs said they did not have enough funding to hire officers for every campus.
Board member Michael Olenick put forth that the board could advocate for consolidation of the funds, so districts can be "independent in making their decisions." Board member Joe York had similar views, noting that the state had increased funding somewhat but added "a lot of strings."
The state holds schools accountable, York said, "yet we don't allow them the flexibility to be successful in everything they do."
The board also heard several speakers ask for added unrestricted money in the Florida Education Fund Program to be used for pay increases.
Teachers deserve a "livable wage commensurate with the role and responsibility of the position," said Mike DeGutis, St. Johns County schools chief finance officer and head of the Florida School Finance Council.
DeGutis proposed the board recommend reallocating the Best and Brightest teacher bonus — about $233 million — and allowing districts to leave their local property tax rates stable rather than reducing them. The latter would let them take advantage of rising property values, and generate about $600 million more in revenue statewide.
Those two sources would provide enough money for districts to negotiate raises with their staffs, he said, and also cover some security costs.
Board members left room for those ideas. But they also did not want to propose a massive increase.
"I don't want Florida to become New York," board member Ben Gibson said, touting Florida's competitive yet affordable and efficient education system as a positive model.
Board member Gary Chartrand agreed.
"We owe it to taxpayers to make sure expenses in the system are the most efficient, even as we look to increase teacher pay," he said.
Chartrand proposed creating a specific Bright Futures scholarship for students who choose to become Florida teachers. Chairwoman Marva Johnson asked for specific action plans, so the board might know how much money would help in attracting and retaining teachers in critical shortage areas.
The board plans to continue its conversation in September. Its annual effort is rarely the ending point in Florida's education budgeting process, but it does offer a glimpse into what the administration sees as the funding needs for the public school system.
The board often comes in millions of dollars above the final product approved by the Legislature.