Budget concerns district officials
As the 2018 session of the Florida Legislature gaveled in Tuesday, local school officials took a deep breath.
Every year, the legislative session, and the varying priorities of lawmakers, brings impacts, small and large, to public school districts and after 2017, small public school districts are closely watching as the session begins earlier than usual.
The number one focus is, of course, the budget, and there is where lawmakers, who craft the major components of every district’s budget each year, have the most impact.
School funding levels are almost entirely the province of state lawmakers and districts must wait until the handkerchief drops on the session to understand their funding levels.
In particular, to gain an understanding of levels to which the various categories in the school budget are funded.
Will there be technology dollars? How will lawmakers fund sparsity, a categorical based on the size of the district which aims to level the playing field for smaller districts?
How will the Florida Education Finance Plan (FEFP) per-pupil funding change?
“We are starting to pull our thoughts together on the budget now,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton. “We can only go one school year at a time. We are not sure where things are going to be.
“We will bring forward a balanced budget, but the budget is our big concern.”
At one point during the 2017 session, it appeared funding for Gulf County schools would be at a level that could require layoffs.
By the end of the session, funding was increased, though at the time Norton said if trends seen in 2017 carry into the 2018 legislative session, the district could be looking at a deficit.
“I have real concerns,” Norton said.
Those concerns are highlighted, Norton said, in part with the decision at this time not to replace a position in maintenance coming open due to a retirement and not to fill a paraprofessional position at Port St. Joe Elementary.
Another area of worry is Title II funding, which was cut last year and appears to be headed toward another cut by lawmakers: that funding currently pays two salaries.
The final budget numbers also figure to factor in ongoing negotations with the employees/teachers union.
The key multiplier to funding is enrollment and the base per-pupil allocation.
During the fall count of full-time equivalent students, the district was trending right at state projections for 1,921 students.
That is an increase of more than 100 students from just three years ago, though the number remains about 300 behind enrollement in 2002-2003.
However, the upcoming spring count, with school principals submitting numbers this Friday, appears to be trending down; the state has the decrease at 13 students, the equivalent of $83,000 in funding.
Those state projections are linked to final FEFP numbers.
Two factors appear to be playing into less-than-forecasted growth in enrollment.
The first is the opening of county borders allowing students to enroll in any district of their choosing, providing the district and school has capacity.
The district anticipated more of a flow of students out of Franklin County than has been realized.
The other is the pace of expansion of Deseret’s operations in the north end of the county; again, the district anticipated growth that has yet to be realized.
Norton also continued to express concern about amendments coming out of the Constitution Revision Commission which could impact school governing structures.
Two amendments being considered by the Commission, and if approved would move directly to the 2018 ballot, would require appointed superintendents and eliminate salaries for school board members.
Elected superintendents are in just three states and Florida has the highest number of districts, 40 or so, still electing their superintendent.
Norton said the proposed amendments, combined with action by lawmakers the past two years, are part of a campaign from the private sector for a foothold in public schools through charter and private schools.
The market in the cross-hairs, he added, is South and Central Florida and North Florida rural school districts are just caught in the gears, Norton said.
“We are collateral damage,” Norton said. “They are out to change public schools as they are.”
He said linking the two amendments concerning school operating structures is a mistake and would remove accountability that comes from facing the voters.
“We have enjoyed a way of life here,” Norton said. “Yes, I have skin in the game, but whether I was superintendent or not, I would want the superintendent to take my call.”