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Lawmakers took millions from big school districts and steered the money to smaller ones

A change to the way the state calculates the per-student funding this year put urban areas like St. Petersburg and Miami at a disadvantage, superintendents said. That could mean reductions in programs and staff.
Published Mar. 16, 2018|Updated Mar. 16, 2018

In a year when classroom funding is already tight, school districts in urban areas will receive millions less as a result of the Legislature's new effort to send more money to smaller counties.

This means urban districts may struggle to recruit new teachers when they can't offer salaries to compete with more rural areas, where the cost of living is much lower, school officials said.

"The long-term implications of this could be dire if nothing changes," said Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho. "There's a disconnect to the economic engine of the state and the dollars are not reciprocal."

The change is called a "compression" of the funding formula, and was a wish-list item this session for Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who fought for it as the Florida Senate's budget chief. This debate over school funding is yet another way Florida's regional, urban-rural divide has surfaced, as even lawmakers from the same party differ on the issue depending on the district they represent.

"Having grown up in Florida, I've been to Publix in Fleming Island and in Tampa and in Miami and the cost of bread is the same in all three of those stores," Bradley said. "I think this cost of living analysis has been somewhat overblown and used as a way to funnel more money to districts over time."

Miami-Dade received $7 million less than it otherwise would have had the Legislature not changed the formula for per-student funding, while Pinellas lost about $2 million and Hillsborough lost about $1 million, according to an analysis of student funding data by Ron Steiger, Chief Financial Officer of Miami-Dade Public Schools.

Here's how it works: $56 million in funding that would have otherwise been spread out evenly to districts, based on the number of students they serve, was instead pulled out of the universal pot of money and directed solely to districts whose average per-pupil amount fell below the state average.

Previously, districts were just given more money beyond their per-student rate to account for higher costs of living, as well as more money for the number of students they have that require extra services, such as students with special needs or English language learners.

This new formula adjustment is "counterintuitive" to the purpose of calculating an average in the first place, which is already thrown off by the fact that urban districts educate so much of the state's population, said Pinellas superintendent Michael Grego.

"The definition of an average is you're going to have some people higher and some people lower," he said.

Real estate data alone show vast differences in the cost to live in different places in a state as diverse as Florida.

The average price of a single-family home in Highlands County, which got one of the highest per-student amounts from the new formula, is just over $98,000, according to figures compiled by the University of Florida. In Tampa, that price is $180,400. In Miami, it's more than $335,000. Miami ranks among the worst 10 metro areas in the U.S. for shortages of affordable housing.

Bradley contended that the formula adjustment was intended to cater toward middle-income counties, who don't necessarily get the same assistance that the most sparse, poor areas do, creating a "donut hole" effect, and that higher salaries aren't necessarily a reflection of cost of living.

"Certain districts have higher employee costs because perhaps they're more union-dominated than other areas of the state," he said. "It's not job of the rest of the state to subsidize those political choices."

Teachers' unions were a hot-button issue of the 2018 session.

Perhaps one of the most controversial pieces of the Legislature's massive education package requires teachers' unions to have at least 50 percent of all eligible members pay dues, prompting massive backlash from Democrats and even some Republicans, though it made it into the final bill signed by Gov. Scott.

Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, said he fought against the formula change along with other House leaders, many of whom also represent districts in Miami-Dade. He did, however, get a study into the budget that will reexamine the way the school funding is adjusted for cost of living, and hopes that next year the Legislature will consider making changes accordingly.

Diaz is termed out in the House but is running for the state Senate.

"I think it's pretty clear … that it's more expensive for a teacher in Miami-Dade than other smaller, rural counties in Florida," he said.

What does all this mean? Hillsborough County Superintendent Jeff Eakins said his district is looking at how they can make ends meet. The state has already asked districts to contribute higher percentages toward employee retirement, plus energy costs are rising.

"That doesn't even start to talk about raises our employees deserve," he said. "It's going to have to come from our programs. It's going to have to come from our supplies, our salaries."


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