Any tax hike likely small





Passing legislation is oft times the easy part.

Establishing the rules by which the legislation will be implemented often proves, for state agencies, the much harder nut to crack.

For example, consider the sweeping omnibus education bill passed in the final days of the 2018 legislative session and quickly signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

From that bill, local school districts will receive more funding; but how they will be able to spend it, the flexibility which flows from Tallahassee, remains the great unknown.

And for districts, such as Gulf District Schools, that makes crafting a budget for a fiscal year less than three months away much like navigating the fastest of video games.

So many moving parts, as financial officer Sissy Worley said.

At least the picture, as it becomes clearer, is also taking on a more rosy hue for the local public schools.

“Six months ago we thought for sure we would have to declare a (reduction in workforce),” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton. “Right now we can live with where we are at.

“But we want to be cautious. This is all just preliminary.”

The picture has even improved from a week ago, as personnel layoffs appear off the table and a potential millage increase falling to under 2 percent, Worley said.

“We would not have to raise the millage as much as we thought,” Worley said. “It does look better than it did a week ago.

“But this is all preliminary.”

A positive for the district is that state projections for growth in property values, which factor significantly into the required local effort the state requires be levied of local taxpayers, are on target with the preliminary roll from the property appraiser, Worley said.

Both offices project property values to climb roughly 5 percent; Property Appraiser Mitch Burke must finalize his property rolls by July 1.

The closer the state and local projections are, the less adjustment for Worley and the district.

Under current projections of the Florida Education Finance Program, the state required local effort in Gulf County will drop 4.9 percent.

Another significant driver of the budget is the full-time equivalent student enrollment, which has flattened this year despite projections of slight growth.

Each FTE carries a set allocation, which this year state lawmakers increased by just 47 cents.

Norton said that despite positive developments in the pipeline, enrollment is not likely to grow much in the next year.

That impacts operational revenue; Norton noted that Calhoun County has nearly 300 more students, translating into more than $1 million in revenue.

The district will receive other funding out of the education legislation, but as of yet it is not clear how those dollars can be spent.

The overwhelming majority is earmarked for school safety and increased mental health services for schools, but the devil will be in details not yet disseminated from the Florida Department of Education.

“We are still waiting on proviso language on the other funding,” Worley said, referring to school safety dollars. “It is not clear how the money can be spent.”

Operational savings necessitated by the small increase in base student allocation dollars will come bringing back some general fund dollars previously used to bolster local capital improvement.

As the district maintained one of the lowest LCI millages in the state, the only component of the budget over which the district has sway, general fund dollars were used for capital improvement.

But the district continues to have pressing capital issues, from aging facilities to a bus fleet in need of an overhaul.

So the district is likely to increase LCI millage which would translate into an overall millage increase to taxpayers of 1.92 percent.


Welding at WHS

The proposed establishment of a welding program at Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School is likely to be delayed as the district awaits disbursement of RESTORE Act funding.

Due to a delay in a comment period on the county’s multi-year implementation plan and other factors, the funding for the welding program is not likely to arrive before late summer.

The current woodworking class will continue at least for the first semester, Norton said, with the hope to have the welding program up and running sometime in early 2019.


Teacher suspension

The Gulf County School Board will hold a special meeting 5 p.m. ET Monday to consider the findings of an investigation into allegations of misconduct by a Port St. Joe Elementary School teacher.

Krissy Gentry, a fourth-grade teacher, was suspended with pay over the spring break due, in summary, to “multiple violations of the district employee handbook,” Norton said.

An investigation was undertaken by a Tallahassee attorney at the district’s request.

The findings of that investigation, and the specifics of the allegations, are under seal for 10 days, or until Monday.

Gentry was recently recognized as a High Impact teacher by the state, a planned recognition for her and a handful of other district teachers at a recent school board meeting was postponed after the suspension.

Gentry, a 29-year teaching veteran and president of the union representing district teachers and employees, has also twice been named by her peers as the school’s teacher of the year.