Florida's school superintendents called on Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday to bring lawmakers back to the Capitol to approve more money for the state's K-12 system.
Although districts will see their overall per-student funding go up next year, nearly the entire increase is reserved for specific purposes, primarily to increase school safety and mental health services.
That leaves little — 47 cents per student — to help pay for the regular rising cost of doing school district business. Districts could struggle to cover expenses such as higher retirement benefits, growing utility costs, any type of employee salary raises or expanded educational offerings.
And that has superintendents crying foul.
"We are grateful the state stepped up … to pass a school safety bill," said Broward County superintendent Robert Runcie, whose district suffered Florida's most deadly school shooting in February. "However, that I believe is being done at the expense of our core business."
Scott's office declined the request Wednesday, emphasizing the overall total increase in per-student spending ($101.50 is the average increase for districts) and that much of it is being reserved for school security.
"In this year's budget, K-12 public schools are provided hundreds of millions of dollars and the flexibility needed to make each school safer while still increasing Florida's per-pupil funding to a record high," said Scott's deputy communications director, McKinley Lewis. "The Governor has been clear — the No. 1 priority right now is making our schools safer, and he's glad that the Legislature provided funding for that specific reason."
Legislative leaders scoffed at returning for a special session.
"The budget approved by the Legislature on Sunday makes an unprecedented investment in K-12 education, including a more than $100 increase in per-student funding," said Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. "The funding formula approved by the Legislature directs schools districts to utilize some of the increase in funding to prioritize school safety and mental health. In the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School just one month ago, providing key resources school districts need to keep our children safe is a priority of the Senate."
Runcie, president of the state superintendents association, and several other district leaders said they shouldn't have to choose between safety and education.
They contrast what Scott offered last year to the current increase.
In his original education budget unveiled last year, Scott asked for $152.45 per student extra, to help schools pay for increasing costs and improving programs. Districts could use that money as they chose. Not only is next year's actual increase of $101.50 a third less than what Scott proposed last year, most of it is pledged to specific items, restricting district spending on other things.
"There basically is no new money available to districts to pay teachers any type of salary adjustment, to introduce and expand effective education programs," not to mention cover rising costs of retirement benefits, utilities and other expenses, Runcie said.
Compounding the situation, Runcie said, the Legislature altered its overall per-student funding formula so that many of the state's largest districts, serving the most students, saw a decrease.
"So we start off with a deficit of several million dollars, based on what has been done," Runcie said.
Some of the district leaders urged Scott to veto the funding program and require lawmakers to start over. Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning had such a request hand delivered to Scott's office on Wednesday.
"Thank you for your efforts to truly increase per student funding," wrote Browning, a one-time Scott-appointed secretary of state and the superintendent association vice president. "Please use your authority as governor to force the Legislature to adequately fund public school operations by vetoing the (Florida Education Finance Program) and calling the Legislature back for a special session to provide us with an operating budget that both enhances school safety and provides the funding necessary to educate Florida's public school children."
If Scott vetoed the entire public school budget and demanded that the Legislature to it over, it wouldn't be the first time. He did it last year, forcing lawmakers to boost per-pupil funding. It was the first time that happened in Florida in about 35 years.
Scott could face a backlash on several fronts if he rejects the superintendents' request. He also would be handing a major political victory to his likely U.S. Senate rival, Democrat Bill Nelson.
Gwen Graham, a Democrat running for governor, called for a veto.
"The Legislature's education budget doesn't come close to fully funding Florida's schools — it doesn't even come close to meeting the governor's budget request," Graham said.
The term-limited governor has struggled during his seven years in office to be viewed as an ally of public education. In his first year in office, he proposed a 10 percent across the board pay cut for public schools that Republican legislators said was ill-advised.
Scott later championed a $2,500 pay raise for public school teachers, but the raises were negotiated at smaller amounts in many of the state's 67 school districts, and Florida teacher salaries continue to languish below the national average.
Last year, Scott signed a controversial bill (HB 7069) that expanded charter schools and increased charter school spending at the expense of public schools. Several Florida districts have challenged the law in court.
The Senate's Education Appropriations chairwoman, meanwhile, wondered how the Legislature would be able to meet the superintendents' request.
"My question to the superintendents is, where do you propose that the funds will come from?" said Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R- Naples.
Runcie said Scott and others had told him that the state has plenty of additional money coming into its coffers.
"This is a matter of prioritization," he said. "You make a decision whether you're going to prioritize kids' education or not. … There is an opportunity now for our governor to step up and send it back to them and tell them to do their job."
Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, said between the hundreds of million needed simply to keep up with Florida's rising student population plus the $400 million response to Parkland, there wasn't much money left to go around. He noted that beyond the base student allocation, extra money was provided for teachers' bonuses, which the House preferred to do rather than fund salary raises as the Senate had sought.
"I understand their position because they're going to fight for their districts," Diaz said. "But having a special session to find a pot of money that's not there is not effective."
Florida has $3.3 billion in reserves, but Diaz said there isn't a political will from Republican leadership to dip into those funds to satisfy the superintendents' demands.
"There are financial rankings of financial stability and financial health which Florida came out No. 1, and part of that reason is because of the reserves," he said. "I don't see an appetite to reach into reserves because that would be a move counter to what I have heard from those leaders."
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this story.