State Rep. Halsey Beshears (R-Monticello) drew a straight line last week between economic development and the school district’s bottom line.
Beshears provided a legislative update to the Gulf County School Board, offering insight into legislation pertaining to Florida schools.
While much education work during the recent session of the Florida Legislature pertained to issues not pertinent yet to Gulf County, particularly charter schools, nonetheless there is impact every year in the form of the state budget.
And how funding in that state budget impacts local schools.
As example, legislators increased funding per district this year but nearly all the increase comes in the form of dollars for technology, another way, Superintendent Jim Norton said, the state removes spending decisions from the control of local officials.
Norton said the state’s unwillingness to allow district flexibility on all of its statutorily-allowed millage constrains local decisions.
Each of the four components of the district’s budget is determined, both in amount and use, in Tallahassee.
For one component, the district is allowed to assess 1.25 mills for bricks and mortar, but can not use that money for any other purpose.
In Gulf County, that means the School Board must leave most of that 1.25 mills on the table while being forced to solicit support from voters for an additional mill to cover operating expenses.
“We need to have local flexibility for those capital outlay dollars,” Norton said.
Norton also said legislators should reexamine the so-called “wealth adjustment” in the state’s funding formula for public schools.
That adjustment – based on property values in the county – requires the district to collect more of its budget locally because the state sends down fewer dollars, even though declining enrollment and other factors have carved the district’s overall budget by more than $4 million in the past three years.
The district, Norton said, is pushing the limit on constitutionally-mandated class size/teacher ratios and has shed more than 20 percent of its workforce the past four years.
“Public education in this county is threatened,” Norton said.
Jobs, school board members agreed, would provide a lot of salve to the wounds.
School board member George Cox noted the series of industry closures the county has absorbed, from the box plant and paper mill to chemical plants and the material transfer station along the Intracoastal Waterway.
That has left the county with expensive land that has lost value over much of the past decade.
“It has been devastating to the operations of the school system,” Cox said.
Consolidating the community school systems on either end of the county “Is not what we want to do,” Norton said.
Beshears said the port is poised, as it never has been, to inject life into desultory economic development.
Noting money in the state budget to at least begin the dredging – a $20 million appropriation pending governor approval – and more than $1 million spent drafting an application and required studies to undertake dredging of the shipping channel, have moved the ball.
There is a public/private partnership in place between the St. Joe Company and Port St. Joe Port Authority to develop the port.
All signs, he said, pointed to momentum that must, he added, likely need to bear fruit in the next 18 months.
“There is as good a chance the port will come to fruition as there ever has been,” Beshears said. “It is as good a chance for Port St. Joe, for Gulf County, as there ever has been.”
The success or progress toward success of the port was also crucial for county officials to make a case for a preferred alternative for the Gulf Coast Parkway.
The Parkway has returned to the radar recently through Florida Department of Transportation public hearings on the project, which remains not fully funded for construction.
County officials contend that while the project was dormant for several years, the project has changed from its original intent to connect south Gulf County and U.S. 231.
“This (project) has to include us, to tie in to us,” Norton said. “I hate to say it, but his is all or bust for us.”
Cognizant of the preference for a more direct and northerly linkage with U.S. 231, Beshears said the county’s argument would be bolstered by port development.
“In 12 months, if the port comes to fruition, you can make the argument you need (the alternative preferred by county officials),” Beshears said. “There is a real Rubic’s cube of what is happening right now.
“We have a good chance of this all coming to fruition. Our odds are as good as they have ever been because of that port.”