Palm Beach County’s public school administrators are ruling out raises for teachers and other employees this year after state lawmakers required that nearly all new education money be spent on beefing up school security and mental health services.
In an unusual move, leaders of the school district said this week that they could not set aside any money for employee raises in their tentative spending plan for the new school year, arguing that rising costs and a dearth of new money make substantial pay hikes virtually impossible. Teachers have received a 3.2 percent average increase in the current year.
“The outlook is poor,” said Mike Burke, the district’s chief financial officer. However, he did not rule out raises entirely.
The county’s largest employer occasionally claims to have little to no money for employee raises, then finds money once union contract negotiations begin. But this year the district’s refrain is being echoed around the state as school leaders assess the fallout from the state’s decision to bolster school security in the wake of the Parkland school massacre in February.
“To give some people raises we’d have to lay people off, given the funding we have,” the chief financial officer of Broward County schools told the Sun-Sentinel this week.
When Gov. Rick Scott proposed new spending to put armed police officers at every school and more mental health counselors on campuses, he called for the hiring to be paid for with new money.
“If providing this funding means we won’t be able to cut taxes this year, so be it,” he said at the time.
But state lawmakers decided to lower school property tax rates — and then to pay for the security mandates by redirecting money originally intended for public schools’ general operations.
That move left only a small sliver of new money to cover general expenses, salaries and other educational initiatives.
“That doesn’t give us a lot of money to address employee salaries and other rising costs,” Heather Knust, the school district’s budget director, told a school board budget advisory committee this week. “We really don’t have increases anywhere else.”
Overall, the amount of basic operating money that Palm Beach County’s public schools receive from state and county taxes will rise next year by 1.1 percent per student, to $7,817.
But nearly all of that increase is required to be directed toward hiring more police officers and counselors and to meet other requirements. The school district plans to hire an additional 75 police officers to comply with the requirement that every school campus has at least one armed officer.
Apart from those mandates, the average base amount that the county’s schools receive per student is rising by just 0.04 percent, or $2.17 per student, district figures show.
Public schools also are facing new costs. The district says it will have to pay an extra $4 million this year to cover employees’ state pensions. The district also has planned hundreds of thousands of dollars in new spending to expand PSAT testing, the iReady adaptive software program used in elementary schools, and several other new systems and initiatives.
While educators supported the call for more school security, the decision to pay for it with money intended for classrooms angered school leaders across the state. Last month, a group of school superintendents asked Gov. Scott to call lawmakers back to Tallahassee for a special session to redo the state education budget.
“We are grateful the state stepped up … to pass a school safety bill,” Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said in March, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “However, that I believe is being done at the expense of our core business.”
State leaders have dismissed the complaints, saying that although much of the money is required to be spent on security, the state budget nevertheless provides a substantial increase in education funding.
“The budget … makes an unprecedented investment in K-12 education, including a more than $100 increase in per-student funding,” Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told The Times last month. That’s the amount before other state mandates.
For now, district officials say their spending plan for the upcoming school year includes a small deficit. But they concede that their outlook reflects conservative accounting.
They have set aside more than $7 million, for instance, in case property tax values and student enrollment growth do not rise as much as expected.
Even so, district officials said, the chances of substantial raises are almost nil. It costs $10 million to raise salaries for the school district’s more than 22,000 full-time employees by just one percentage point. In November, teachers won a 3.2 average raise for the current school year after acrimonious negotiations.
One piece of positive news, district officials said, is that state lawmakers have continued to finance a teacher-bonus program. Last year that state program allowed “highly effective” teachers to receive one-time bonuses of $1,200, while “effective” teachers received bonuses of up to $800.
Burke said that, if possible, the district will attempt to find money to extend the one-time bonuses to guidance counselors and other educators covered by the teachers union contract but who are ineligible for the state’s teacher bonuses. Doing so would cost about $1.5 million, he said.
Ultimately, the school board approves the budget during the summer, and board members could instruct district officials to adjust their spending priorities.
District leaders have suggested asking voters to approve a countywide property tax increase to pay for teacher salary increases, but any increase would not take effect until 2019.
Justin Katz, president of the county’s teachers union, said he hoped the district will find some money, but he directed blame for the dire financial straits at state leaders.
“We anticipate trying to identify existing spending that could be cut in order to provide some funds for employee raises,” Katz said. “However, the bottom line is that the state Legislature has continued what is now a longstanding tradition of disgracefully underfunded public education.”