When he sat on the Gulf County School Board, the late Oscar Redd used to say the school budget looked like a Cadillac in Tallahassee and resembled a Schwinn bicycle by the time the folks in Gulf County saw it.
This year appears to more of the same.
While the district will realize additional funding from the state under the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) and local voters gave the district four more years of an additional operating millage, the district still faces a difficult road in crafting the coming year’s budget.
Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton said on Tuesday that where once the prediction was the district would face as much as a $600,000 shortfall even with the additional mill approved by voters, that number now represents the bottom floor on potential cuts.
“Even with the one mill we are still going to have a budget shortfall,” Norton told board members. “We are still projecting at least a $600,000 shortfall for next year. I previously said it could be as much as $600,000 – now it appears the shortfall will be at least $600,000.”
In addition, the Congressional budget tug of war that resulted in sequestration of some federal funds will hit the district in funding for Title I, Title II and Title VI – generally addressing the needs of the poorest and neediest children – as well as funding that support vocational programs.
“We are looking at a 9 percent cut in federal funding,” said Sara Joe Wooten, assistant superintendent for instruction. “That is what they are planning on, at a minimum.”
The district will see additional funding from the state, but as financial officer Sissy Worley said those funds are earmarked.
The state will send down $2,500 for teacher pay raises – the district is unclear if that is in perpetuity or a one-time bonus, whether that amount will cover benefits and the raises must still be negotiated on the local level – as well as for safe schools and technology and additional computer bandwidth.
However, the district could not spend any of those dollars to address the budget shortfall, Worley noted, without facing a financial penalty, taking flexibility from the equation.
“We are getting more money but it is earmarked for specific items,” Worley said. “None of it will help us with the budget shortfall.”
The answer, Norton said, may ultimately come to a declaration of a financial emergency followed by a declaration of a reduction the workforce.
Norton said input from the district’s labor consultant indicated the workforce cuts could be accomplished without sacrificing state constitutional class size mandates.
He held out the possibility that the district could reduce the workforce and reach other cuts through employee furloughs.
He added that he was not making the declaration now, the board and union representing employees would be notified in advance, but that the swiftest way to address the budget shortfall – and school districts must balance their budgets – would be cuts in jobs.
“We know we can make it work.” Norton said. “But we cut $1.25 to $1.5 million this year and there was room. We have cut to the bone. We are going to have to get to the proverbial marrow.”
The one mill additional operating levy, approved by voters for four more years in March, has dropped in value over the course of the first four years since initial passage from $2.2 million to $1.3 million.
The district went to voters for four more years, promising not to levy additionally beyond current levels on Local Capital Improvement, or bricks and mortar.
However, the district, high-performing and an honor roll district under state formulas, with two out of four schools graded “A”, is also facing a 10-year trend of declining enrollment combined with a designation as “property rich” which forces more of the burden for funding schools onto local taxpayers.
“We have performed at a high level while cutting and cutting,” Norton said.