The Palm Beach County School District will struggle to pay out a 1.3 percent raise to employees and still cover the hike in its power bill and pension responsibilities with the meager per student increase state lawmakers seem poised to deliver as their session speeds to a close, Superintendent Robert Avossa said Thursday.
And this district is one of the lucky ones — more than 20 of Florida’s 67 countywide districts are calculating losses if the budget, as it stood Thursday afternoon, is approved.
That’s because the starting point, the base allocation per student, is projected to drop by $27.07.
“Considering the overall economic strength of our state, it is alarming that the basic funding needs of Florida public school students could go unaddressed,” Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said in a written statement. “With a united voice, we call upon Florida legislators to increase the base student funding in support of public education in Florida.”
With a final vote on the budget imminent, Avossa urged voters to act.
“The numbers we’re seeing are very troubling. It’s time that this community reach out to their local elected officials and demand that they fund and invest in public education the way that it should be,” Avossa said.
His message to lawmakers: Spend it on kindergarten through grade 12 education or spend $40,000 to $50,000 on the dropouts who wind up in jails and prison.
“We want the governor to veto the whole thing and start again,” Avossa said.
The state’s allocation for its 2.8 million students varies by district, starting with the base and then adding money for a long list of things such as transportation, disabled student education and cost of living calculations.
When those are tallied, the state is offering the districts on average not quite $25 more per student or about one-third of a percent, down from 1 percent last year.
Palm Beach County, which gets a boost due to a high cost of living, will see about $98 more per student. But that gets gobbled up quickly by costs such as a 5 percent increase due on the district’s $33 million utility bill, and expected changes to health and worker compensation obligations, said Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke.
The state currently spends about $7,196 per student and the last version of the budget that district leaders saw took that to $7,220 – an amount that keeps the state in the basement compared with other states nationally, Avossa noted.
When it came to the education budget, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron worked through difficult differences by agreeing that the House would follow the Senate’s lead when it came to higher education, while the Senate would follow the House’s lead on K-12.
That compromise took legislators from talking about a 3 percent spending increase in per student spending that was favored in the Senate to one that delivered only one third of a percent, as favored by the House.
This week, Negron chided education officials for narrowing their focus on the per student spending. Two programs, “schools of hope” and the Best and Brightest teacher bonuses stand to gain more than $400 million next year.
“It would be a mistake to only count in the education budget what comes directly through the (Florida Education Finance Program),” Negron said, referring to the state’s per pupil formula. “There are other educational opportunities that we will give to our constituents, and I think that improves the overall quality of our system. … That should also count when we’re determining funding.”
No school in Palm Beach County performs poorly enough to be a “school of hope” and money for the Best and Brightest bonuses do nothing for the classroom, Avossa said.
“I’ve never seen $400 million spent on unproven schemes,” Avossa said. “Terrible.”
Avossa echoed the sentiment of school officials and education lobbyists when he said this legislative session has been particularly maddening because budget proposals have been hashed out largely behind closed doors with little input from the people who will have to stretch those dollars.
Once a budget is agreed upon, Florida lawmakers must wait out a 72-hour cooling off period before casting a vote. That vote could come as early as Monday.