Superintendents to Gov. Scott: 'Let's do more' on proposed 2018-19 school budget

Superintendents Diana Greene of Manatee County, Kurt Browning of Pasco County, Jacqueline Byrd of Polk County, Mike Grego of Pinellas County and Jeff Eakins of Hillsborough County gather to protest per-student funding this year from the state. [HCPS]
Superintendents Diana Greene of Manatee County, Kurt Browning of Pasco County, Jacqueline Byrd of Polk County, Mike Grego of Pinellas County and Jeff Eakins of Hillsborough County gather to protest per-student funding this year from the state. [HCPS]
Published Mar. 15, 2018

TAMPA — One by one, Florida's local school leaders called on their communities Thursday to deliver this message to Gov. Rick Scott: Don't shortchange schools to boost security in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 Parkland killings.

"Let's do more for our students," said Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins, who hosted his peers from Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Polk counties in a rare gathering of leaders.

At issue is the way districts are being directed to spend some $400 million.

Scott initially set out to increase unrestricted school funding by $152 per student.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Florida school superintendents ask for a special legislative session on education funding

But, in the budget now on the governor's desk, that per-student unrestricted money works out to 47 cents. Those funds will be largely eaten up by rising fuel costs, employee pensions and insurance, and various state mandates.

Not only that: A "safe schools" bill requires districts to develop plans to provide armed protection on every campus. Those costs are expected to consume far more than the state's safe schools funding.

"Florida can do more than 47 cents for our future," Eakins said.

He gave out the governor's email address: And he held up 47 cents in coins, repeating the mantra that all five had agreed to: Let's do more.

The governor's office said Thursday that Scott is reviewing the budget. Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said the Legislature's budget provides hundreds of millions of dollars for school security, that per-pupil spending will be at a record level and "the number one priority right now is making our schools safer."

Legislative leaders, including Senate President Joe Negron, maintain a special session isn't needed, and the increases in the funding bill are unprecedented. They say the Parkland massacre changed everything, with students and parents insisting on making the safety top priority.

But, while the call from Parkland has been mostly about gun control, the Legislature spent the final weeks of the session discussing how best to "harden" schools, and whether those measures should include arming school personnel. A compromise allows districts to arm some school staff, but not full-time teachers, and some of the new security funding will be used for those new efforts.

While they agree that schools must be safe, the superintendents said the result spells financial disaster for their classrooms.

In Hillsborough, for example, safe school funding is $3.4 million a year. It dropped during the recession and never fully recovered. It is still $2 million below what it was at the turn of the century, though Hillsborough serves more than 50,000 additional students at nearly 100 more schools.

Hillsborough spends about $16 million, using a combination of law enforcement and its own armed guards to protect high schools, middle schools and elementary schools to varying degrees.

The new budget gives Hillsborough $9.9 million in school security funds. But the cost of getting an armed officer at every school could be $10 million above and beyond the current levels.

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In Pinellas, which is half the size of Hillsborough, superintendent Mike Grego predicts a gap of $6 million to $8 million, though state security funding will grow by $2.9 million.

"This definitely will have to come out of our general revenue, our schools, our classrooms, our programs, really the educational services that we so want to provide," Grego said.

Polk superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said state leaders "are not giving us enough to keep up with the cost of doing business. This cannot happen to our children. They deserve better from us."

READ THE GRADEBOOK: The talk of Florida education

There are similar concerns in Manatee, where superintendent Diana Greene said, "We still need to pay our teachers. We still need to provide adequate resources for our classrooms. We still need to ensure that we can meet the class size amendment. Forty-seven cents will not make that happen."

Kurt Browning, of Pasco, called the for the Legislature to return in a special session to correct the school budgets. He estimated the 47-cent increase in base student allocation will add up to $34,600 total for his district. "This amount is not even close to what we would pay a starting teacher," he said.

While other districts around the state have been active this week in calling out the governor and Legislature, this is spring break week in Hillsborough.

The School Board does, however, plan a special called meeting on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m.

Even before the disappointing legislative news, the district was struggling with a budget crisis that resulted in a bargaining impasse with teachers, a planned workforce reduction and hundreds of millions in unmet capital needs.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol