Gulf District Schools officials could not afford to wait much longer.



Gulf District Schools officials could not afford to wait much longer.

With uncertainty wafting out of Tallahassee concerning the ultimate fate of two significant pieces of legislation, local public school officials have moved ahead with filling out the workforce after suspending those efforts late last month.

Until Gov. Rick Scott makes a decision on a sweeping education bill and the overall state budget, final numbers are a moving target for local school districts with just weeks before a budget year turns July 1.

Tallahassee, and state lawmakers who, despite being from the same political party have struggled to remain on the same volume, let alone page, provides the framework of public education budgets.

Local control is reserved only for one of the smallest millage components, that for local capital improvement, bricks and mortar.

“The Legislature has left us on a very rocky footing with no true north,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton. “We are moving forward with the necessary items.

“We need to have as much as we can set in stone so that the kids are not paralyzed.”

So, after cancelling a meeting late last month at which the School Board was expected to renew instructors and employees on annual contracts, which were non-renewed several weeks earlier, the district has moved ahead and filled positions.

“We filled all the existing positions,” Norton said, noting the district must not only weigh budget concerns but the constitutional dictates on teacher/student ratios.

“Where we grew with students we knew we had to add teachers.”

The district had to create at least two positions, and another may be needed when enrollment shakes out in the fall.

The district is projecting that student enrollment, on the upswing the past two years, will expand again for the coming school year.

The number of students out of Franklin County, a consistent source of transfers in recent years with new state rules arriving on school choice beyond county lines, as well as the arrival of the Deseret workforce and families in Mexico Beach are all positive, but quantifiably unknown, factors, Norton said.

What the district is not doing, at least not until Tuesday’s regular meeting, is the setting the local capital improvement millage.

Given that is the one component the district can adjust, Norton said that might be the area where belts must be tightened beyond what they have been in recent years.

The district has not levied its full LCI in eight years as a tradeoff for a voter-approved one-mill operational levy.

And further tightening LCI will not come without pain as the district has a host of projects on the burner, including replacing an aging bus fleet, lighting for the gym at Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School, air conditioning coolers at two of the schools.

“We are kicking those forward,” Norton said. “I intend to work with each and every board member and let them prioritize.”

The scenarios for the coming weeks are varied.

Should the education bill, HB 7069, become law, the district would see a cut of $27 in per-pupil funding under the state’s funding formula for public schools.

Combined with payouts in terminal pay for retiring teachers, which as spiked in recent years but is expected to drop precipitiously in the next few years, that will leave the district likely dipping into reserves to balance the budget, Norton said.

Should Scott, who has yet to even be presented with either the state budget or education bill, vetoes the education bill, Norton said all indications from local lawmakers is that school funding for the coming year will probably be set at the current year’s.

That would likely mean, Norton said, that the pain would be delayed by a year as almost certainly the raft of issues covered in HB 7069, as well as their adverse impacts for small rural districts, would arise again next year.

Should Scott veto the state budget, necessitating a special session, all bets are off as lawmakers will be under the gun to try to finalize a budget the governor would approve before June 30 and the end of the current fiscal year for schools.

For this year, the district has the benefit of foresight.

At the instance of several board members, particularly Billy Quinn, Jr., the district has spent several years bolstering its unrestricted fund balance.

By law, that fund must balance out to no less than 3 percent of the budget.

Gulf District Schools are currently holding an unrestricted fund balance over 5 percent.

But, having to dip into those dollars this year will, as several options facing school districts these days do, bring additional pain next year.

Should current trends continue out of Tallahassee, Norton cautioned, next year could indeed bring a reduction in workforce and more constraints on programs and funding.