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Schools face funding cuts

school board volusia funding teacher pay BEACON FILE PHOTO

BEACON FILE PHOTO

Facing a $7 million shortfall, the Volusia County School District will have to consider “smarter school spending” in the coming year, Chief Academic Officer Teresa Marcks told the School Board May 9.

Changing staffing formulas to eliminate teaching positions, and reducing the number of class periods in middle school are among money-saving ideas being discussed.

District Chief Financial Officer Debra Muller issued a grim financial forecast for 2017-18.

The Florida Legislature’s eleventh-hour passage of a state budget yielded what many see as less-than-well-thought-out education funding. It reduces per-student funding to $4,133.64, or $27.07 less per pupil.

With 63,000 students, the district stands to get about $1.7 million less from the state. The state funds supplement the local district’s funds, which are raised largely through property taxes.

“More local control over education is badly needed,” District Superintendent Tom Russell wrote in a commentary on the budget. “Instead, the Legislature further eroded what local control exists by adopting a 278-page bill behind closed doors in the final hours of the session.”

Overall, cuts will result in a $31-per-student deficit, which is unprecedented in a non-recession year, Muller said.

The education bill, HB 7069, addresses charter, virtual and private schools, scholarships for low-income students and students with special needs, increased autonomy in higher-performing schools and graduation accountability. However, funding for K-12 went begging in the bill, and school superintendents across the state are pleading for the governor to reject it.

“Once all the state’s education funding cuts are applied across Volusia’s 63,000 students, your school system stands to lose more than $10.8 million next year,” Russell wrote.

The state’s funding formula, since 2004, discounts Volusia County’s share each year because living expenses are lower here than in other counties, even though more than half of Volusia County students are from low-income families. Since 2004, the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals at school has risen from 40 to 65.

“Every dollar we would get from the FEFP [Florida Education Finance Program], we have to send back part of that to Tallahassee, and it’s redistributed,” Muller told The Beacon.

Russell noted the “inequitable funding formula punishes the taxpayer for having a lower cost of living.”

It also makes it harder for Volusia County Schools to give raises.

Last year’s lengthy contract negotiations resulted in employees being promised 2.5-percent raises this year, which will further constrain the budget. Russell said a 1-percent raise for all Volusia County employees costs approximately $3.1 million annually.

“Volusia teacher pay has suffered tremendously due to a loss of funding,” Russell said.

One bright spot from the Legislature this year is an agreement to study the funding formula; local school officials hope it will result in a more fair distribution.

Russell said the education bill makes it easier for charter schools to proliferate and grants them more flexibility than traditional public schools have.  

“Without a doubt, education funding in Florida is going in the wrong direction; that is, unless Gov. Rick Scott vetoes the budget,” he wrote.

At the May 9 budget workshop, School Board Member Linda Cuthbert asked about Florida Lottery funds, presumed to enhance public education.

While Bright Futures scholarships are funded by the Lottery, Muller said, the destination of those dollars is decided by the Legislature, and only 28 cents from every Lottery dollar goes to education. Of that, she added, only 15 percent finds its way to the K-12 general fund.

On the positive side, Muller said, the district will save about $3 million during the coming year as new lower-paid teachers replace retiring senior staff.

Patti Lapinsky, a reading coach at DeLand Middle School, has been teaching in Volusia schools for 24 years.

“It’s disheartening and demoralizing that, once again, our representatives and governor refuse to fully fund education,” Lapinsky said. “It’s more and more difficult to hire and retain good teachers, and — to be honest — I’m not sure I could in good conscience recommend someone go into education. It gets harder and harder to do more with less. I’m worried about the future of education, not just for my grandchildren, but for all children.”

According to The News Service of Florida, two major components of the legislation include a proposal known as “Schools of Hope,” an enticement to charter schools to locate near academically struggling public schools, and an expansion of the “Best and Brightest” teacher-bonus program.

It also aims to limit standardized testing and offers districts the autonomy to ignore a controversial state formula that ties teacher evaluations to test results.

It could take weeks for HB 7069 to reach Gov. Scott’s desk for review and, possibly, rejection.

“I’m counting on Gov. Scott to help us on the education front,” Volusia School Board Member Carl Persis said. “I hope he’s mad enough to veto the entire thing, and I hear he is.”

- Erika Webb, erika@beacononlinenews.com

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