Gulf District Schools engaged this week in the statewide battle over education legislation.

Gulf District Schools engaged this week in the statewide battle over education legislation.

District officials submitted a letter to Gov. Rick Scott urging a veto of a sweeping education bill passed in the final hours of the recent session of the Florida Legislature.

While there are considerable philosophical tussles evident within debate over the bill, at its core the bill deals with dollars and cents and in a way districts argue is not positive.

And that has local officials, and teachers and employees on annual contracts, on edge.

In a letter from the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS), the organization dissents on the reduction of the base student allocation.

“(That) is the basic per-student allocation that funds programs that serve Florida students,” the letter detailed. “While the (school funding formula) includes a $24.49 increase in per-student funding, the cut to the (base student allocation) results in a negative $27.07.

“We cannot recall a non-recession year in which the (base student allocation) was cut. Due to the decrease in the (base student allocation), many districts will experience an overall cut in per student funding.”

That is precisely what could happen in Gulf County.

The district, based on early drafts of budget numbers out of the Florida Senate, were optimistic of seeing a 3 percent increase in revenue; instead the district, under current legislation, would see a 1.2 percent decrease, a swing of more than 4 percent.

Due to the uncertainty of the numbers, and with the budget year churning in six weeks, the district cancelled a Monday meeting at which the School Board was expected to renew teachers and employees on annual contracts.

In an annual rite of spring, those teachers and employees received non-renewal letters earlier this month; in a typical year those teachers and employees would be renewed once final budget numbers were sent down from Tallahassee.

If the current legislation survives and is signed into law, however, Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton said Gulf District could see a deficit in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We had to cancel (Monday’s meeting),” Norton said. “I could not in good conscience go forward until we know our numbers.”

And, now, particularly if there is a veto and possible special session, the numbers may not be known until after the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.

It is important to note that while the overall school funding formula does include an increase, beyond the base student allocation all funding falls into categoricals which come with tight restrictions on how the money may be spent.

The education bill passed earlier this month would constrain local control even further, according to the FADSS.

“They tied our hands on a lot of things,” Norton said. “There would be very little flexibility. It makes it tough for us to operate.

“What they did was provide a bigger budget with less revenue.”

That lack of flexibility was also paramount in language that restricted how districts could disburse Title I funding within its Title I schools.

“In essence, the language dilutes funding, diminishes local control, and precludes a district from targeting services from a district-wide basis that enables more students to be more efficiently served with public dollars,” wrote the FADSS.

That language could impact staffing at the two county Title I schools, Port St. Joe and and Wewahitchka Elementary schools.

In a way, the student funding and other components were folded into an overall philosophical debate over standardized testing and charter schools, which receive public funding but can operate outside of Florida Department of Education rules.

Much of the provisions of the education bill, which the FADSS criticized for its passage in the waning hours of the session with little debate, deal with expanding the reach, and access to public funds including capital outlay dollars, of charter schools.

“The House members from South Florida could care less about us in North Florida,” Norton said. “At the expense of public schools, they are driving an agenda favoring charter schools.”

The bottom line, this is bad legislation, from conception to approval. The Florida Association of District School Boards has also assailed the bill.

“Every district is affected differently, but every district is impacted adversely,” Norton said.