The name sounds wonky enough: District Cost Differential. And for years, the Flagler County school district has been trying to get state lawmakers’ attention to point out how the differential, in their view, disproportionately penalizes Flagler’s share of state education dollars: two years ago, Flagler was receiving $300 less per student than the average $7,200 per-student share.
“We should have billboards out on this. It’s just incredibly unfair,” Tom Tant, the district’s finance director, said at the time. “I don’t think our community knows. That’s the problem. Why are we paying the 6th highest taxes in required local effort and receiving the third-lowest funding per student in the state?”
That may change. Beneath the bureaucrat-speak is a politically volatile issue that could spur a legislative debate in the coming weeks about how to divvy up billions of dollars among Florida school districts.
The House is moving forward with a budget bill (HB 5101) that would revamp the District Cost Differential, which is part of a formula used to distribute money to school districts each year. Also this week, the Senate Education Committee gave an initial approval to such a bill.
The issue is politically volatile because tweaking the so-called DCD can mean more money will go to some districts, while other districts will get less. For lawmakers who will head home in May from Tallahassee and face school leaders and parents, that can create high political stakes.
“If you tinker with it, somebody loses, somebody wins,” said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who is a former Leon County schools superintendent and works as chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
The DCD is a price-level index that is part of broader school-funding formula, known as the Florida Education Finance Program, that takes into account numerous factors in distributing money and totals about $21.1 billion this year. Those factors range from enrollment numbers to student transportation.
In concept, the DCD is supposed to help measure how much it costs to hire teachers and other school employees in different parts of the state. The House and Senate proposals would change to a wage-level index, rather than a price-level index — a potentially major difference.
“I think it is important for the community to understand that due to legislation from Tallahassee and the use of the District Cost Differential formula (never intended by its creator to be used as it is) Flagler has been an education tax donor county since the system was started,” Schoolo Board member Janet McDonald said in an interview last August. “I started asking questions about funding and budgets since my first year on the board. I have lobbied, along with other school board members across the state, our state representative, senator, and those on the legislative education committees to revise the unfair funding scheme.
Lawmakers included $100,000 in this year’s budget to hire a consulting firm to conduct a study, which has helped fuel the possibility of changing the DCD. But the idea drew a lengthy discussion Tuesday in the Senate Education Committee, which voted to approve a DCD bill (SB 1284) sponsored by Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah.
While the bill passed the committee, Diaz promised to “pause” it until numbers could be run to determine the effects on school districts. He said it “could affect many counties differently, and there’s a lot of concern.”
“The question that’s going to be asked is, ‘How does this affect my district?’ ” Diaz said. “I’m going to be completely honest with you, we don’t know how this is exactly going to affect your district right now.”
The last big debate about the DCD came in 2003 and 2004 when then-Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, pushed through changes. The changes benefited some school districts and caused financial hits for other districts.
“In 2006, Miami Dade took the approach to fight something in the funding formula called the ‘District Cost Differential,'” School Board member Colleen Conklin told her colleagues on the board as far back as 2011, when she was proposing to sue the state over the funding formula. “This is when districts are penalized based on the ‘amenities’ that they have such as beaches and theme parks, which are presumed to bring in additional revenue to that local community. This also works in reverse. Poorer districts can receive an allocation through the cost-differential formula. In 2006, Miami Dade took an $88 million dollar hit due to a recalculation of the formula. Their claim was that this violated the ‘uniformity’ of the education clause.
“Amenities” in the formula play into where people want to live and how much they are willing to accept as wages. Some beachfront school districts like Flagler have long argued that they have been penalized by factoring amenities into the equation.
“We all know that that (the amenity factor) doesn’t help teachers buy homes,” Diaz said.
According to a legislative analysis, the bill The bill requires that by January 1, 2020 and annually thereafter, “the Office of Economic and Demographic Research must develop a methodology for calculating the variation in the cost of wages and salaries and calculate each school district’s wage level index using applicable county- and occupational-level data. To improve the integrity of the calculation, the bill requires the office to seek input from a broad range of stakeholders, to include school districts and the Department of Economic Opportunity, to verify factors that result in the cost differences among counties.”
But it was clear this week that the possibility of changing the system concerns some lawmakers, including raising questions about whether rural areas could be hurt by using a wage-level index in determining the DCD. Diaz said another part of the school funding system known as a “sparsity” supplement could help rural counties, but he said it is unclear how the changes would affect mid-sized counties.
–FlaglerLive and the News Service of Florida