Florida lawmakers approved an education budget in the final hours of the legislative session that slashed money that pays for schools by nearly 8 percent, cutting funding by $542 per student. That’s a $1.35 billion cut. In essence, lawmakers balanced almost half the budget on the back of the public education system.
Budget writers say they were left with few choices but to slash spending when faced with a $3.75 billion budget hole, and said they tried to shield education from the more severe cuts that hit other areas, such as prisons.
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Public schools are now left to figure out how to close multi-million budget gaps, with many crafting plans to lay off hundreds of employees, and cutting school services like extracurricular programs.
For Flagler County, the cut is significant, but expected: the school district has already prepared for a budget with revenue about 7 percent lower than last year’s, about equal to the amount of money the district is losing with the elimination of federal stimulus dollars. The district is cutting its $100 million budget by $3.5 million to account for half the lost revenue. It’ll go into its $9 million reserve for the rest. “We’re planning on using about $3.5 to $4 million in 2011-12—almost half of our reserves,” Tom Tant, the district’s finance director, said Monday morning.
About 40 teachers will be laid off in Flagler schools, mostly in middle and high schools.
The Flagler district–like districts across the state–won’t know precisely how much money it will get from the state until after July 1, when the state releases funding figures based on the money it will provide, combined with the so-called “required local effort”–what local school property taxes will generate. As of now, the state has made an error regarding Flagler County: Tallahassee is assuming that local property tax values are dropping 3 percent. In fact, local property values have dropped 14 percent. The state sets local school taxes based on those figures. Expect those taxes to go up significantly. It’s at $8.013 per $1,000 in taxable value (or $400 for a $100,000 house with a $50,000 homestead exemption). That rate is likely to go up closer to $9 per $1,000, a property tax rate not seen since the early part of the 2000s.
The cuts could have been deeper. But the state is now requiring all public employees to contribute 3 percent of their salary to the state retirement fund. For the Flagler school district, that represents $1.8 million the district will not itself have to contribute. During negotiations between the teachers’ union and the school district last month, the union, Tant said, assumed that the state’s funding level would stay the same, while teachers would have to provide that extra 3 percent to their retirement fund, netting school districts the difference. Tant said that’s not the case: the state is reducing funding by $572 per student and assuming districts can cover some of the loss by having retirement expenses reduced. Still, the 3 percent employee contribution is likely to mean that the school district won’t have to go in for the full $3 or $4 million in its reserve.
In other words, the budget is partly being balanced on the back of students, whose resources are being reduced, and partly on the back of teachers and other school employees, whose salaries will effectively cut by 3 percent.
Florida already was 35th in the nation in per-student funding, according to 2008 figures. The further cut will drop the state the near bottom nationally. Per-student funding currently is $6,897.59, Tant said. Even that is a drop of $2 since the beginning of the school year. It will go down to $6,325 next year.
This year’s budget was particularly harsh for public schools because it comes on top of years of falling property tax revenue, drops in enrollment and cuts or at least stagnation in the what the Legislature sends to schools.
“If you look at the budget we’re coming out with, it could be a lot worse,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. Lawmakers in charge of the education budget initially braced for more severe 15 percent cuts. But Montford explained that schools will have a hard time coping with even a very slight cut.
“If this were the first year, (schools) could absorb it,” said Montford, a former school superintendent. “We’ve been absorbing these cuts now for five years.”
As in Flagler County, many school districts have drafted spending plans that include layoffs and salary cuts, furloughs, cuts to after-school programs and school bus transportation. The Miami Herald reported that the Miami-Dade school district, for instance, is considering teacher layoffs for the first time and salary cuts to guidance counselors and maintenance workers to help close its budget hole that is estimated at over $100 million.
“It’s not cutting fat, it’s cutting into bone now,” said Ron Meyer, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association. He also found it troubling that school funding is cut while voucher programs that divert state funds to private schools are being expanded.
Advocates for public schools say at the same time their funding is cut, schools are being asked to do more, such as institute new testing requirements as part of the new teacher merit pay law.
“We have cut co many people out of the central office, at the same time you are adding more and more requirements,” Montford said. “Who is going to do it? Literally, who will do it?”
Republican lawmakers who helped craft the education budget, which cuts money for schools by $1.35 billion, say the money schools are losing will be partially offset by savings from requiring teachers and other school employees to contribute 3 percent toward their retirements and from federal stimulus dollars saved by districts from last year.
But school districts have used those federal stimulus dollars unevenly. Some districts spent it at the federal government’s urging, others spent some of it, and still other districts socked away most of it for next fiscal year. In Flagler County, clearly some of the federal money helped swell the district’s reserves. But those reserves will be used up fast at current, expected rates.
Florida School Boards Association Executive Director Wayne Blanton doesn’t look favorably upon the changes to the Florida Retirement System that some lawmakers say is a “savings” for schools in the budget.
The way Blanton looks at it, the state is requiring school employees to use their own salaries to plug gaps in the budget, though he said he realizes without the changes to the retirement system “we would have been even more in the hole.”
Blanton said he would have preferred the Legislature look for other sources to plug the budget shortfall, such as a new Internet sales tax rather than look to the school employees themselves.
Meyer, the lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, said beyond the cuts to education, schools and teachers have been hit hard by changes to how they will be paid and awarded contracts as well as policies that funnel more kids it private schools.
“The super-majority of Republicans have been like kids in a candy store,” Meyer said. “They’ve just seen an opportunity here to do whatever they have been wanting to try in the past but hasn’t gotten through.”
–The News Service of Florida contributed to this report