Florida’s education budget is the largest ever. Why do districts fear cuts?

Local officials say there may not be enough money to cover their costs while also expanding school vouchers.
Members of the Florida House meet toward the end of a 2021 legislative session that produced a $22.8 million budget for education. But some local school officials fear it may not be enough, citing a planned school voucher expansion, rising pension costs and other factors.
Members of the Florida House meet toward the end of a 2021 legislative session that produced a $22.8 million budget for education. But some local school officials fear it may not be enough, citing a planned school voucher expansion, rising pension costs and other factors. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published June 7, 2021|Updated June 7, 2021

When he signed Florida’s 2022 budget last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared the state had never spent more on education.

He touted the $22.8 billion funding package as one that would boost teacher pay, mental health services, school safety and more.

School district financial planners did not share in the enthusiasm.

While the numbers look good on paper, they said, the added money won’t make a significant positive impact on local public schools. In fact, many said they expected to make cuts to keep the books balanced.

The districts’ biggest concern is the state’s creation of a $464 million budget item called the “student reserve allocation.” It was established to provide funding for students who enroll beyond projections, which have shrunk for many districts during the pandemic. But it’s also expected to cover the costs of up to 60,000 additional students receiving state vouchers to pay for private school.

Some, including Pasco County schools chief finance officer Olga Swinson, questioned whether there’s enough money in that account to accomplish both goals. Complicating matters, districts won’t know until October whether their student counts are up or down, while their budgets must be completed by September.

“So it’s kind of difficult to plan,” said Kevin Smith, Pinellas County’s chief finance officer.

The Pinellas and Hillsborough districts anticipate their student numbers will decrease below pre-pandemic levels. As a result, they expect their revenue to shrink — especially when the state, at the end of this month, stops subsidizing districts like it did in the first year of the pandemic.

During fiscal 2021, districts received funding for the number of students they projected to have before the pandemic occurred, regardless of whether they all showed up. Statewide, enrollment decreased by tens of thousands of children.

For the coming year, districts will not get per-student money for students who do not attend. The state will revert to its usual funding model based on actual student counts.

In growing districts like Pasco, officials expressed worry that this return to pre-pandemic funding, plus not knowing whether they will receive full funding for added students, could leave them in a bind.

“We don’t think we’re going to see any additional money coming to us,” Swinson said. “Every school district is having to cut to balance their general fund budget.”

Two other factors are also causing concern.

First, the Legislature reduced its annual support of class size reduction funding by $308 million, or nearly 10 percent. This is the money that helps districts afford teachers and classrooms to maintain the smaller class sizes required by the 2002 constitutional amendment.

School boards will have to absorb the difference within their general operating funds to remain in compliance, Swinson said.

Second, lawmakers increased the districts’ annual contribution to employee pensions by millions for a second straight year. In Hillsborough County, officials expect that increase to approach $9 million.

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“We’re already in the hole based just on the (Florida Retirement System) increase,” said Romaneir Johnson, Hillsborough’s chief financial officer.

Interested parties from both ends of the political spectrum suggested such predictions are misleading.

State Rep. Randy Fine, the Brevard County Republican who heads the House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee, said the budget DeSantis signed was based on enrollment projections that districts provided. They should not be wildly off, he suggested, meaning that few should need to tap into the reserve.

“We’re confident that’s going to be enough money to do both,” he said, referring to vouchers and returning student funding.

At the same time, Fine noted, since districts received millions of dollars for students who did not attend, “they should have banked it. If they didn’t, that’s poor management by politicians.”

On that point, Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar agreed.

“It’s disingenuous for districts to say they need to make cuts,” Spar said.

The state funding per student isn’t decreasing, despite objections by local officials who wanted to see the amount unchanged from the pandemic year, he said. Moreover, he added, many districts should have money they didn’t spend in the past year on things such as hiring extra teachers to meet class size while children learned remotely.

They’re also getting millions in federal stimulus cash with few restrictions attached, Spar said.

“One caveat: Florida is 43rd in funding (nationally). So is it enough money? No,” he continued, raising related concerns that efforts to boost base teacher pay might drive off veteran educators whose raises are smaller. “But districts are no worse off this coming year than last year.”

District budget planners acknowledged that their worries are based on unknowns, particularly relating to the return of children who got their education elsewhere during the pandemic. But they are not comforted by the Legislature’s projections that Florida public schools will add 54,000 this coming year, given that more than 80,000 disappeared from the system during the pandemic.

Still, they recognized that it’s a scenario that differs little from other years when they’ve faced financial straits.

“You’ve got to watch over every penny,” said Smith, the chief financial officer in Pinellas. “We always have to adapt our expenditures to revenues.”