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Grim, Doleful Post-Mortem as State School Board and Educators Wonder What’s Next

| August 3, 2011

Nails on a chalkboard. Education in Florida isn't sounding hopeful. (Sharon Drummond)

Nails on a chalkboard. Education in Florida isn't sounding hopeful. (Sharon Drummond)

Revamping the state’s school funding formula, eliminating class size requirements and closing sales tax loopholes were some of the policy ideas floated before the State Board of Education during a marathon budget workshop on Tuesday.

The daylong meeting was designed to help the Department of Education prepare its legislative requests, a wish list that is sent to lawmakers in advance of the session. Department officials plan to have the request ready by mid September, an accelerated timetable given the 2012 session’s early start in January.

Dozens of education stakeholders from across the policy spectrum shared their thoughts on how to best cope with cuts in education funding, given some bleak economic forecasts. Public schools have been hit hard by the recession, with funding from the state cut while revenue from property taxes, which help fund schools, has plummeted statewide.

Tuesday’s meeting started with a somber reminder from state budget forecaster Amy Baker that Florida’s emerging economic recovery remains fragile. Schools are hopeful property values will start to tick up, but Baker said a projected 2-percent growth in property tax revenue for schools next fiscal year is too optimistic.

“It will be a detectable change in that forecast,” Baker said. “You will have a bit more pressure on the local piece, the property tax dollars, than you originally anticipated.”

Baker warned that all signs point to a gradual, slow recovery, but if the brittle economy stutters, “we are going to have a much different budget picture than we are looking at this moment.”

Dozens of education stakeholders spoke Tuesday, with many painting dismal pictures of how budget cuts have affected them. Slashing administrative staff, building cheaper schools, tightening retirement benefits, outsourcing payroll and even turning off the lights were some of the budget-cutting choices schools had to make.

Andy Ford, head of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teacher’s union, said years of painful budget-trimming exercises have left school districts with little left to cut.

“After four years of devastating budget cuts to education, school districts have trimmed the fat in their budgets,” Ford said. “The idea that we can improve our schools by cutting, consolidating, and cracking the whip is a fantasy that shortchanges our children.”

Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent for Miami-Dade Schools, said the district chose to save money by self-insuring its health insurance, re-negotiating contracts on school lunches, cutting administrative staff and slashing administrative salaries. “We squeezed a lot on the administrative side,” Carvalho said.

Superintendent Carlene Anderson, of Walton County Schools, said increased requirements from the state, coupled with cuts to administrative functions, have caused a brain drain in her district.

All of her top-level staff has decided to retire early, she said. “They come weekends, they stay late, they come on holidays,” Anderson said. “Burnout is a significant problem for us.”

Florida’s legislative leadership took plenty of hits from educators.

The Legislature was faulted for the deep cuts in education funding. The lawmakers who crafted the state budget characterized that choice as a difficult product of a no-new-taxes policy and declining state revenue.

Lee Swift, chairman of the Charlotte County District School Board and President of the Florida School Boards Association, said lawmakers view education “as an expense that needs to be reduced.”

“We are in difficult times and everyone knows it,” Swift said. “I fail to understand why we are picking on the potentially greatest resource we have for turning this around.”

Charter school operators said they were not immune to budget cuts, and had the added pressure of trying to preserve their razor-thin profit margins. “The model right now is very, very tight,” said Jon Hage, president of Charter Schools USA. “It’s not unheard of for organizations like ours to be looking at other states to grow.”


Hage faulted Florida for not preserving more funding for education, comparing the state to Louisiana, whose state constitution prohibits education cuts in lean budget years.

This year, Florida lawmakers directed $55 million in school construction dollars to charter schools, with virtually none left for traditional public schools. The funding was portrayed in the Florida media as charter schools stealing school construction dollars away from public schools. Hage said public schools have access to cash for school construction that charters do not, such as bonds, giving the Legislature reason to dedicate money just for charter school construction.

One budget-cutting secret Hage shared with the board is that charters spend significantly less on school construction because they don’t have to meet the same strict building codes that schools do. “Charters build to a commercial code, which is less expensive and much quicker to build to than school districts,” Hage said.

As the conversation shifted to next year’s legislative agenda, educators offered a wide range of solutions.

Some superintendents said they would like to see class size restrictions eliminated, though acknowledged the difficult of asking voters again to approve changes to the popular class size amendment.

One of the more sweeping policy changes discussed was revamping the state’s school funding formula so that it is tied to performance, not enrollment. Florida public schools are currently graded based on student performance on tests, but funding for schools is based on enrollment.

Patricia Levesque, head of the pro-school choice group Foundation for Florida’s Future, advocated for more performance-based funding for schools, though acknowledged it would be a big policy shift.

“Let’s take some baby steps,” she said.

Carvalho suggested the Department of Education try to prepare for an economic recovery by getting the Legislature to agree to set aside a certain portion of future revenue increases for education.

Ford brought up the politically unpopular idea of closing sales tax loopholes or implementing a tax on Internet sales as a way to better fund education. “We need to find new revenue sources,” Ford said.

At the end of the marathon budget session, new education commissioner Gerard Robinson was directed to sift through the recommendations on choosing which ones to emphasize to the Legislature.

–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida

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14 Responses for “Grim, Doleful Post-Mortem as State School Board and Educators Wonder What’s Next”

  1. Liana G says:

    …”One of the more sweeping policy changes discussed was revamping the state’s school funding formula so that it is tied to performance, not enrollment. Florida public schools are currently graded based on student performance on tests, but funding for schools is based on enrollment.”

    But schools get extra money/funds for making AYP! Why else would they risk getting flagged for high erasure marks if money wasn’t involved? Not to please parents, that’s the least of their priority and does the complete opposite.

    …”Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent for Miami-Dade Schools, said the district chose to save money by self-insuring its health insurance, re-negotiating contracts on school lunches, cutting administrative staff and slashing administrative salaries. “We squeezed a lot on the administrative side,” Carvalho said.”

    We need to apply Alberto Carvalho decisions in our district! We will actually be able to restore school hours, rehire more teachers and may still have a balanced budget.

    …”Superintendent Carlene Anderson, of Walton County Schools, said increased requirements from the state, coupled with cuts to administrative functions, have caused a brain drain in her district.
    All of her top-level staff has decided to retire early, she said. “They come weekends, they stay late, they come on holidays,” Anderson said. “Burnout is a significant problem for us.”

    We can do this too! Since all of our top-level staff are grossly overpaid. Let’s promote those up and comming ones, low on the salary scale, who are full of vitality and zest and are eager and very much capable of proving that they too can get the job done.

  2. lawabidingcitizen says:

    There have been no cuts to education.

    There have been minor cuts in the amount of money schools have to spend.

    It is the education establishment who chose to take class time away from students in their usual way to make the cuts hurt those they claim to serve. Taxpayers and parents better get ready to have students hurt even more because there will be many more draconian cuts to come. Members of the Flagler County Board of Education can hope all they want, there will be no upward ticks in real estate taxes for them to squander* in the foreseeable future.

    At least half of the administrative staff should be let go and the rest should have their salaries reduced to a level commensurate to their responsibilities. Running a school doesn’t require reinventing the wheel, nor is it, to use the popular phrase for difficult mental activity, rocket science. The model has been around for over a hundred years, so let’s not make believe it’s some sort of major mental challenge.

    The object of publically funded schools is to teach our children what they need to know to live happy productive lives. The argument starts when we try to define that goal.

    The fastest and easiest way back to turning out informed citizens is to go back to the pre-60’s curricula and organization, return schools to local control and abolish the state and federal boards of education. When there are no state or local grants (merely our tax dollars glommed off by numerous agencies and then sent back as “it won’t cost us a dime” free money are abolished and we at the local level go back to paying for everything, costs will fall to manageable levels as well as reverse the trend of high schools grads who can’t read, write or do simple arithmetic.

    Problem is kids in school today have parents and even grandparents who are victims of the current education debacle, so when they are told conservatives are trashing education, they aren’t savvy enough to understand that it’s the unions and their emphasis confiscating their members’ wages via union dues, who demand more and more from taxpayers so they can, in turn, give it over to Democratic politicians to help them get more people to vote for them, who are causing the financial crisis.

    As Albert Shanker, one of the architects of the post cultural revolution school system and early president of the American Federation of Teachers said, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” ‘Nuff said.

    *Giving raises to already grossly overpaid administrators is so unspeakably foolhardy as to be incomprehensible.

  3. Anne-Marie says:

    Well said, lawabidingcitizen!

  4. Markos says:

    Law abiding your ideas have some merit, but your arguments also have several weaknesses, and need to be tightened up. For example, you say:

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    —— There have been no cuts to education.
    There have been minor cuts in the amount of money schools have to spend.

    It is the education establishment who chose to take class time away from students in their usual way to make the cuts hurt those they claim to serve. Taxpayers and parents better get ready to have students hurt even more because there will be many more draconian cuts to come. Members of the Flagler County Board of Education can hope all they want, there will be no upward ticks in real estate taxes for them to squander* in the foreseeable future.
    —————————————————

    Law Abiding, you say that there have been only minor cuts in education, but then later you say that there will be many more draconian cuts to come. Is it your view that draconian cuts in the future will be mostly “window dressing” cuts or “protect the base” cuts, where essential salaries and perks will be protected while reducing actual classroom time? For example, class instruction time can be slashed, putting the pain on students, without really troubling the core baseline of salaries, positions and perks? Just want clarification. If there are minor cuts now, will there REALLY be draconian cuts in the future as you argue?

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    The fastest and easiest way back to turning out informed citizens is to go back to the pre-60′s curricula and organization, return schools to local control and abolish the state and federal boards of education. When there are no state or local grants (merely our tax dollars glommed off by numerous agencies and then sent back as “it won’t cost us a dime” free money are abolished and we at the local level go back to paying for everything, costs will fall to manageable levels as well as reverse the trend of high schools grads who can’t read, write or do simple arithmetic
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    Law abiding, would you go back to 1960s Flagler County organization- segregation by race and inferior education for kids based on race? Flagler was the last county to desegregate, spending valuable tax dollars in fruitless appeal attempts. How would such pre-1960s organization help today’s kids?

    In addition how would such pre-1960s curricula like Homemaking for teen girls help today’s mobile, often fragmented families, or even intact ones in today’s digital age, where women are heavily involved in the workforce, and where indeed girls outnumber and outperform boys at the college level and outperform them at the lower levels as well? Women are well under their way to outnumbering men in the general workforce as adults, and where education, work experience and hours worked per week are equal, they earn equal pay with men. How does Teen Homemaking 101 circa 1960, address these realities of 2011?

    You also call for a return to exclusive local funding. I have no problem with localism as PART of the reform package, but it appears simplistic as a solution to school funding problems overall. There are thorny issues involving race, equity, adequacy, etc along with decades of court litigation, political maneuvering, unfunded mandates, etc..

    In addition, it is by no means clear that more local control will lead to better education at the present time. You mention the school unions- but even under your scheme of local control, school unions, which have nationwide alliances and confederacies (think the NEA for example), would STILL dominate the education space. In fact, said unions, using their political clout at the local level, would STILL be in a position to elect and influence local school boards, and local politicians. So how does a “return to local control” fundamentally upset the status quo? And how will this “reverse the trend of high schools grads who can’t read, write or do simple arithmetic?” Please explain.

    I think more refinement is needed in your arguments. I will agree with you that looming fiscal difficulties will make the way we do education change in the future.

  5. Liana G says:

    I second that Anne-Marie – and this line needs to be repeated

    …”As Albert Shanker, one of the architects of the post cultural revolution school system and early president of the American Federation of Teachers said,

    “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”…

    Which leaves us parents and tax payers to represent our children.

    Taxation without representation = public schools

  6. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Markos, this is a forum for only the broadest strokes.

    You can’t imagine local control because you are probably under 50 and have no memory of a time when the federal government had virtually no impact on daily life. Schools were better or worse depending on the community. People sacrificed to buy homes in good school districts so their kids could get the best education. Maybe by today’s standards that wasn’t “fair,” but in today’s world all schools are mediocre at best and most are very much worse, so people who can afford to do so, send their kids to private schools — or home school them if they have the time and the ability.

    Domestic/Life Science classes — why not for all kids — boys and girls. Let everyone learn how to make beds, keep a house clean, manage their checking accounts, save for things they want, learn about hygiene, first aid, how to use appliances safely and lots of other things that don’t come immediately to mind – perhaps simple home and bike repairs and the like.

    Unions would have virtually no impact on schools if the big bucks weren’t available from the states or the feds.

    Separate, but equal schools, was a bad idea, but that goes to the whole segregation issue which was/is much bigger than the public schools and a discussion for another day.

    Keep thinking outside the box of today’s media proganda Markos. We need young people like you to be tomorrow’s leaders.

  7. RC says:

    @lawabidingcitizen

    I see on here, time and time again, you blame teacher unions as the source of the problems of our education system here in Florida. I am not sure if you are aware of this but teachers in Florida are not required to join the union. I am a high school teacher here in Palm Coast and I am not a member of the union because I can not afford the dues. The reality is, the Florida teachers union does not have a lot of power. If they did, do you think the 3% pension requirement would have passed?

    You also said, “…but in today’s world all schools are mediocre at best and most are very much worse…” Let me ask you this, when was the last time you were in a classroom? If it has been a while, I invite you to come visit my classroom and observe how non-mediocre it is.

    I could have studied to become a financial adviser or an engineer but I instead decided to become a mathematics teacher. I listened to a lot of people tell me that I was crazy and that I shouldn’t become a teacher, they don’t get paid enough. To me, money isn’t the end all be all but of course it’s important. I figured the meager salary would be enough to get by frugally, and it is, plus it would be made up to us with a pension. Then that was essentially taken away. Yes I still have a pension but I have to contribute 3% towards it, so there went that logic. But I will not let that bring me down, we all have to tighten our belts these days but it concerns me, who would want to become a teacher now? You do have to be a little crazy and maybe I am.

    I am not sure if you are aware of this but 50% of teachers don’t make it past their fifth year of teaching, I wonder why that is? Perhaps they become discouraged by people like you, but not me. I will continue to do what I do because I know I can create high paying jobs, like engineers, by passing on my love of mathematics to hundreds of students each year. Not all of them will become highly paid professionals but I can assure you, I will do my best to see to it that they have the fundamentals to be prepared for the next level of their education.

    And I don’t need to be a part of a union to do any of that.

  8. Thinkforyourself says:

    lawabidingcitizen – what a freakin cranky soul you are. Do you have any idea how schools are funded in Florida? Also, the union in Florida isn’t strong – seriously! No teeth, they can’t strike. You sound like you still live up north – you are in Florida. Schools are funded drastically different and their is no union power. You are so misinformed it’s not even funny, talk about getting on here, blowing smoke and dealing with your own made up facts. BTW, re-read the paper – Flaglers top administrators did NOT get a raise. Why don’t you try supporting public education instead of shredding it every chance you get.

  9. Liana G says:

    My son just graduated college with a degree in environmental engineering. The current starting salary in this field is $50k but no job are available. His other option is medical software (training he received in the Air Force) with a background in engineering, any type. The starting salary is $34k, 1 week vacation, and benefits he’ll have to fully pay for. So he’s off to Hong Kong to spend time with his grandparents and to check out the job prospects there. My advise to him – don’t limit yourself to one place. There’s a whole other world out there – go explore it!

  10. lawabidingcitizen says:

    RC:

    Teaching mathematics (that was my field as well) your students are self-selected and you don’t face the task of indoctrinating your classes with leftwing propaganda. So far the immutable law of numbers has not been twisted to suit the left’s narrative. Keep up the good work sending well prepared budding mathematicians on to higher education.
    ____

    Thinkforyourself:

    I do support public education, just not your version of it.
    ____

    Point of information: I’ve lived in quite a few states along the eastern seaboard and I’ve volunteered at many of them. How does that change anything I’ve said?

  11. Helene says:

    LAC: Math is not as “self-selected” as you think. ALL high school students must take 4 years of math: Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry, and Trig/Stat. Those who are advanced can get get Alg 1 and 2 out of the way by starting in middle school and then they can go as far as Calculus.

    RC: your prediction/question is sadly right on. I was recently on a college tour with my son and the tour guide would stop and show us each of the major school buildings. As we came by the education building, the tour guide asked our group of about 25 if there were any potential teachers in the group. Silence. “That’s the response I get on most of my tours, she laughed. Well, if you change your mind, that’s the building where you will spend your time.”

    LAC: “Nuff said”.

  12. Liana G says:

    Helene, could it be that more and more students are turned off from becomming teachers because of the horrible memories they have of public education?

    I’ve met teachers and prospective teachers who said their school experience was so terrible they chose teaching to make a difference. And I’ve met prospective teachers who are all about the 9 months work year and tenure, though they are pretty upset that tenure will not be around when they become teachers. I take comfort in knowing this. With all the nepotism and cronyism that takes place in government institutions, gaining tenure is too easy.

  13. Liana G says:

    Interesting article on The Monitor today.

    Who will win the battle between teachers and taxpayers?

    There just never seems to be enough money to fund public education. During the boom years teachers and their unions were constantly complaining that taxpayers were too stingy. That drumbeat was heard throughout the nation. The more money school districts received, the more they asked for.

    Imagine if your property taxes set you back $43,000 a year, with 86% of that going to the school system. You justify it if you have two kids in school and it beats paying the freight for private school in the city. But if your kids have flown the coup, why pay?

    That’s the dilemma in wealthy New York enclave Bronxville. Despite having wealthy residents and tax money gushing in, the school district there is having to cut back. The district cut their janitors loose last year, outsourcing that work to eliminate pension costs.

    The teachers threw a fit when the janitors were sacked, believing that school funding comes magically from heaven. Bronxville’s 150 teachers have been working without a contract since last June, the New York Times reports. The educators believe the two percent salary increase they’ve been offered to be inadequate.

    Teachers with a master’s and 30 years on the job make nearly $118,000 in Bronxville and are entitled to retire with an $80,000 a year state pension, or more than two-thirds his or her final salary. Try finding that deal in the private sector. Bronxville teachers don’t have to worry about saving their own money for retirement, or about doubling as investment analysts, combing through the fund choices a 401k plan might offer, hoping to make the right picks to ride the booms and avoid the busts so enough will be there for their golden years.

    This is a simple math problem. Paying the 150 teachers that are on the job is one thing, but taxpayers are paying retired teachers at the same time who aren’t teaching anyone. And as the Times piece makes clear, the empty-nester taxpayers that are crying “uncle” and leaving town are selling their homes to young families with kids and lower incomes. They are moving there for the great schools, but their incomes can’t take the tax pain.

    “We are in a very different world today, no question about that,” Earl Leiken, mayor of tony Shaker Heights, Ohio told the NYT. “Maybe if you go back to the Great Depression, there was a similar resistance to local tax increases, but not since then.”

    Indeed there was, as David Beito writes in his wonderful book Taxpayers in Revolt: Tax Resistance during the Great Depression. Farmers organized and overran tax sales and urban property owners banded together to stage tax strikes. For instance, Chicago city government was helpless as over half of the property taxes due for 1931-32 went unpaid. Those who did pay their taxes were made fun of by their friends and neighbors.

    Emboldened teachers vs. squeezed taxpayers. There’s a fight brewing.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/Mises-Economics-Blog/2011/0310/Who-will-win-the-battle-between-teachers-and-taxpayers

  14. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Helene, do all students follow the same curriculum? Are there no differences in requirements for general, academic or commercial diplomas?

    Just a reminder: remember teachers only work nine months out of twelve when they lament they need to stay up late to grade papers, do lesson plans, etc. or complain about their meager pay.

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