School Board Chairman’s Q&A on Flagler District’s 0.5-Mil Tax Referendum on June 7
FlaglerLive | May 14, 2013
Flagler County School Board Chairman Andy Dance has been taking and answering questions on the referendum, on June 7, proposing to raise property taxes modestly to ensure the continuation of certain academic programs, restore 45 minutes to the school day for high school and middle school students (the 45 minutes were eliminated two years ago to cut costs), and add security measures. You can read details of the proposal here and here.
“Could we have done a better job of explaining this referendum and where the money will go?” Dance asks. “Yes,” he replies emphatically.
“We have not done a good job communicating to date, not really. I hope that from this point forward, we do a better job of explaining why this is important.”
Dance’s own argument in favor of the referendum is posted here.
At the time of the last election, did you not know your current funding model? Did you not even look ahead six months into the future during your budget discussions?Wait until the next regular election and then decide what the school taxes should be!
This is probably the single most important question that needs to be answered. Comments are all over the board on this one. First, understand that the school board balances its budget every year. We are not the federal government. At the beginning of the year, we had an estimated revenue stream from the state and federal government (based one estimate of student enrollment), we adjusted it to fit our models, and we budgeted expenses based on board priorities that reflect our mission and vision for the district.
The funds that are generated by this referendum are for next year’s budget, not this current budget. Did we look ahead? Of course! We looked ahead last spring and determined that presenting two expiring taxing referendums for approval at the same election was foolish, and we moved forward with the half penny and not the .25 mill. We would make the necessary adjustment to accommodate for the lost 1.6 million at budgettime.
The district experienced a string of occurrences this past fall and winter that would affectnext year’s budget negatively and caused the Superintendent to propose the specialelection to replace the expired 1⁄4 mill and add another 1⁄4 mill. School security became a big concern for parents and the community in December. TheSuperintendent recommended bringing School Resource Officers back to the elementaryschools, as they were before the recession-fueled budget cuts started to affect schoolservices. The proposed SRO’s will cost the district $150,000 to $300,000 per year (seeattached proposal from Sheriff Manfre). Please note that SRO’s are more than just armedguards. SRO’s are important parts of the school culture, as they deliver preventionprograms on bullying, drugs, alcohol, tobacco and gangs.
School properties and infrastructure are also being strengthened to support our mission ofsafe and secure facilities. The recent sweep of all campuses culminated in a list ofimprovements that will cost $400,000.
The District has also been experiencing a downward trend in student enrollment, starting in the fall of 2012. This reduction puts additional pressure on next year’s budget, as decreased enrollment equates to fewer general revenue dollars from the state. The bad part about decreased enrollment is that it is spread across the district, making it hard to pinpoint areas for budget reductions until we actually see where the student end up enrolled at the beginning of the school year. If we knew 200 4th grade students were not showing up at Wadsworth next year, it is easy to accommodate for that. When 200 students leave and are spread across 12 grades and 11 facilities, the expected equal drop in expenses does not follow. Larger districts are forced to redistrict and close schools when student population takes a significant drop, as in Volusia and Brevard counties.
The federal sequester does affect the school district as well, as we stand to loose $1.5 million in federal funding for next year. The reduced funding does not mean we get to reduce services. The District will still have to deal with the federal mandates to provide services based on the students with free and reduced lunch status, but with less money to do so.
The wildcard in the proposal is adding the additional 45 minutes back to the students’ day in middle and high schools. I keep reading how the board doesn’t make the hard choices, cut expenses and live within its means. Well, cutting the 45 minutes two years ago was an example of a hard choice. Nobody liked it then, and nobody likes it now. From the day the Board passed it, we have been under increased pressure to add the 45 minutes back. With the increased rigor associated with the switch to Common Core standards, the pressure is on the teachers and students. The school board is committed to our mission and vision to be the nation’s premier learning organization and adding the 45 minutes back to the student day helps us get there. With that in mind, the superintendent and the board included the cost of adding the lost 45 minutes back to the student day as part of the referendum. If passed, we would get this time added to the start of school in August. The cost for this is approximately $2.1 million.
Why does adding 45 minutes to the day require adding teachers?
The adding of 45 minutes to the student day requires the addition of 38-40 teachers due to the limit of 25 hours per week of student contract time that is part of the teacher’s union contract. A more detailed explanation from our current Assistant Superintendent and former high school principal, Jacob Oliva can be found here.
Oppose this and you don’t care about the children. They are trying to distract from the really bad math and the fact that this money, if approved, is likely to go nowhere other than in some pockets at the top.
The District has fulfilled the promises laid out in the prior referendums. The math in all the presentations is clear. There are dollar amounts associated with each service that will be rendered and how much they cost. Adding 45 minutes to the school day will add teachers, not administrators. Could we have done a better job of explaining this referendum and where the money will go? yes! We have not done a good job communicating to date, not really. I hope that from this point forward, we do a better job of explaining why this is important.
In light of the fact that the School Board knew this levy had been repealed, it is time for the School Board to make the same hard choices others are making across this country while seated at their kitchen tables. It appears you have not been paying attention to our budget sessions over the past six years.
Every year I have been on the board has been accompanied by a budget session with budget cuts. We are mandated to balance the budget. When the State reduced funding to the schools every year, we had to make those hard choices in order to balance the budget.Within the yearly budget, we also have internal reserve goals and State mandated reserve requirements to meet.
Over the past six years we eliminated almost 200 positions. The administrative pay schedule was revamped last year to place caps on positions and restructure salary steps. We furloughed administrative days to save money. We made the decision to remove School Resource Deputies (SRDs or SROs) from elementary schools and move planning to save money (45 minute shorter student day). We increased the walking distance for middle and high school student to two miles, saving transportation costs. That is just a small sample. Those are not easy decisions when your mission is for students to be safe and you constantly push for academic excellence.
Remember, we are not the federal government. Maybe one day they will have to work under a balanced budget like us.
Wait, it’s going to get worse, what with the recent “timely” report of steadily declining student enrollment for the past two years, and the current year has not been officially tabulated yet. More loss of revenue for the District. Hope the District based their plans on that being likely to happen.
Student attendance is always a wildcard. You can craft the best budget, but you are never 100 percent sure how many students will show up on the first day, or how they will be distributed around the district. We use all the tools available to us to estimate conservatively. For an unexpected and abrupt drop in student enrollment like we experienced this fall, we have a healthy reserve fund just for this purpose [currently at $7.4 million, slated to decline by $1.7 million over the next year]. Next year, we will have to budget for fewer students, based on the trend.
The bottom line is that schools are not as much of a driving factor in the local real estate market as many assume and as much as the School Board would like you to think. The schools really aren’t driving property values at all, because they aren’t that large of a motivator in home sales. Families relocating here require jobs. Granted your notion also takes into account that the school board decisions would actually improve the schools. We’ve already received accolades nationally. So we’redoing just fine. Why spend more?
There are two misconceptions in the statements above. First, when people and businesses relocate, high performing schools are at the top of the “must have” list. Businesses that relocated demand good schools for their employees that relocate and the business needs a solid young workforce. We know that parents will pay extra money to relocate to an area with good schools. What about retirees? From the Wall Street Journal: “Even for buyers and owners who don’t have school-age children, good schools can ensure consistent demand for properties — and strong prices.”
The school district is very proud of our recent accomplishments. The district recently received a glowing renewal of our District accreditation by AdvancED (SACS). District-wide accreditation is a laborious process, requiring the district to prove that it is meeting innumerable criteria of academic achievement, strategies (such as technological learning and innovations), teaching techniques, involvement by the community and proper governance. This district met and exceeded all five criteria. The AdvancED review team “spoke in glowing terms of the district’s achievements,” as FlaglerLive reported, “especially highlighting an attitude of willful innovation and risk-taking even in the face of economic contraction.” George Griffin, the review team chair, said he expected to hear excuses of why things were not done anymore, in light of budget cuts. He didn’t hear such excuses. “Rather,” the report continued, “every dollar was put to the benefit of students in the form of reading teachers, electives, art and music education and various types of academic coaches, all of which have been cut in many other districts.”
In late April, Matanzas and Flagler Palm Coast High Schools were identified as two of the most outstanding high schools in the country. U.S. News and World Report released its annual Best High Schools rankings after analyzing 21,035 public schools nationwide. Out of 777 high schools in Florida, only 119 met the student performance and college readiness criteria that enabled them to be included in thenational rankings. Both Flagler County high schools, Matanzas High School and Flagler Palm Coast High School, are among this elite group. MHS is ranked # 72 in Florida and #1,523 nationwide; FPC, # 87 in Florida and #2,242 nationwide. These rankings put MHS in the top 7 percent and FPC in the top 11 percent of all high schools nationwide (note: the data used to qualify our high schools for this ranking was prior to the cut in 45 minutes of instructional time).
However, we acknowledge there are areas of improvement that need to be addressed. One of those is the achievement gap. A longer school day can help us get back on track to solving this problem. Adding the 45 minutes only gets us back to where we were. But that is the first step.
You should have made the requests during the last election. Either a: You did not realize a tax was expiring, b: You knew the tax was expiring and decided to hold a special election in the hopes of low turnout helping their position. If a, you are incompetent and need to get voted out of office. If b, you are wasteful of our tax dollars and manipulating the voters and need to bevoted out of office.
Again, I want to drive home this point. We did understand the tax was expiring, and all things remaining the same, we were ready to prepare a budget for the 2013-14 school year without it. We are receiving the tax funds through June of this year (our fiscal year), so this year is not the problem. The new half mill funds are for next year and next year’s budget. However, all things did not remain the same, as I explained earlier. The current set of circumstances required a new look at funding for next year. The choice is up to the voters how we proceed.
But aren’t schools already getting more money this coming school year (2013-2014) than this current year by a lot?
Gov. Rick Scott writes: “My Florida Families First 2013-2014 Recommended Budget includes $18.47 billion in total funding for K-12 education, an increase of $1.25 billion, or 7.3 percent, for K-12 public schools. This increase represents per student funding of $6,799, an increase of$412, or 6.45 percent, over the current fiscal year. State funding for K-12 education totals $10.7 billion – the highest state funding level in history. Included in this historic total is $480 million to support $2,500 pay raises for Florida’s K-12 teachers, plus the cost of associated benefits.”
Based on the numbers above, 40 percent of the funds are allocated to the teacher raise. Flaglerlive.com explained the supposed “additional” funds in a recent article. With all the strings attached, the district is not receiving additional money, but we are staring at a $1.4 million deficit when you deduct the mandates that are associated with the funding. What the state gives, they do not give without strings attached!
Security is not necessary on a daily basis. Lock the darn doors and do not let anyone in without ID presented. Cut administrative and secretary positions to streamline costs, freeze salary raises for school administrators, limit or reduce after-school programs or combine them so that they can occur at one or two locations rather than all of the schools running electricity, air conditioning, and staffing. These are just a few ideas,and I’m sure the board, privy to information on budgets, could come up with more — just as the board admitted it had done before asking for a levy at the last minute.
It is apparent that not everyone agrees with SRO’s at all the schools. The feedback that I get when talking to parents is that they feel more at ease knowing the schools have Resource Officers. Does it solve the entire school security issue? No. No one is stating that it will. SRO’s were at all schools prior to the recession, so this is a move to reestablish that service. All the cost cutting recommendations you made have been implemented.
- Cut administrative and secretary positions to streamline costs – We have cut close to 200 positions across the district, including administrative positions. You have mentioned the Assistant Superintendent position specifically. That was a position in force when Bill Delbrugge left the district. Ms. Valentine was the Assistant Superintendent. In an effort to show good faith in across the board cuts, she kept this position unfilled for two years after taking the helm. The school district is the largest business in the county, and when Ms. Valentine’s daughter was in a near fatal car crash, it was evident that the district needed this position of leadership, and the appointment was made. In addition, every successful company has a succession plan, and with Ms. Valentine retiring next year, this appointment provided leadership stability at the top of the largest employer or business in the County. We can agree to disagree, but a clear second in command is a must, and not a luxury.
- Freeze salary/raises for school administrators – That was in effect until last year. After capping positions and restructuring the salary schedule for administrators, these positions received a 2 percent raise for the first time during the recession years. Restructuring will save thousands each year moving forward.
- Restructuring limit/reduce after school programs or combine them so that they can occur at one or two locations rather than all of the schools running electricity,air conditioning, and staffing – We reduced after school programs, clubs, school travel, field trips and athletics. Building maintenance efficiencies that have been implemented have saved the District hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
- We moved the middle-high school transportation limit to 2 miles.
- We reduced employee work days.
- We reduced number of stipends.
- We completely shut down use of schools during holidays and extended breaks.
- There are many more.
I would not have a problem with paying a little more for added security. I think the presence of an armed SRO on campus has a definite deterrent factor.
Technology in the classroom is a capital expense. Technology is paid for by the 1⁄2 penny sales tax, which is allocated solely to capital expenses (building repairs, technology, etc.). We are forbidden by law from spending any of the sales tax dollars on general revenue expenditures, like teacher salaries.
Why a June 7 special election?
It is all about timing. If the board is to receive the funds in time for the 2013-14 school year, the tax needs to be approved prior to June 30. There is not another regular election until August and November 2014. If a referendum was passed then, funds would not be collected until 2015 for the 2015-16 school year.
What is this special election costing us?
The school district has budgeted $80,000.
Could you please tell my why Phoenix Academy wasn’t on the chopping block? How much does it cost to run that school?
Think of Phoenix as the District “Charter School Alternative.” The concept of Phoenix evolved from a three year pilot of one grade level of students to a school that now serves 4th & 5th and may include 6th grade, as there has been enough demand from 6th grade students to possibly add one class. School enrollment based on applications received for next year is maxed out (88 spots), with a waiting list for 6th graders that want to attend. One reason you can attribute to the success of charter schools in our County is the size of our schools. They are large, and some parents want a smaller school atmosphere, leaving the traditional public schools just for this reason. Phoenix is our large school alternative. It keeps students in a traditional Flagler County public school that otherwise would be at a charter school or home schooled. Remember, school funding follows the child.
Phoenix does have some operating costs that would be eliminated if the students were moved into classrooms at an existing campus. The school has one secretary that takes care of the day to day record-keeping (plus other duties). The school operates as part of Wadsworth Elementary School. Therefore Phoenix does not have its own principal or vice principal.
Phoenix operates on a longer school day, and has two buses that transport students. If the students were moved a regular school campus, to save transportation costs, the school hours would need to mirror the parent school hours, and transportation costs “may” be reduced as some students would ride the normal bus assigned to that parent school. Phoenix students come from all areas of the county, so transportation will still be needed.
Phoenix did not come up because of the discussion the board had during the fall when we evaluated the school after the first two and a half years. The board moved to keep the school if enrollment numbers went up. We gave the teachers a student enrollment goal to reach if the school was to survive. That goal was achieved, and then some. Enrollment is maxed out this year due to the positive parental word of mouth from the original class, the one to one technology, longer school day and small school setting. We are bringing charter school students and home school students back to the district due to programs like Phoenix.
Andy Dance has been a Flagler County School Board member since 2008 and is its current chairman. Submit your question to him by email here.