Before anyone celebrates the governor’s broadly advertised increase in funding for public education, Flagler County school officials would like you to know that it isn’t as rosy as it seems.
“Even though there’s a 2.5 percent increase, they’re funding growth that they took away last year,” Superintendent Jacob Oliva told the school board during a budget presentation this morning. He was referring to the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott, who have touted this year’s funding increase as historic, without also noting that it merely returns state education funding to a break-even point before historic cuts in previous years.
In actual numbers, the district’s general fund budget is going up from $84.7 million to $86.6 million, and per-student funding is going up by $173. But the district lost $199 per student last year. “So we’re starting out with $27 less,” Tom Tant, the district’s finance director, said. He then used the phrase he has been using at budget time every year since the Great Recession: “We have some serious challenges.”
Nevertheless, the numbers are brighter this year than they’ve been in many years. The district’s general fund budget will be $2 million larger, even based on the state’s assumption that Flagler will lose 22 students overall, going down to a district-wide school population of 12,631 students, including charter schools. Some $1.2 million of the increase is due to the governor’s initiative to bring back per-student funding to near its previous high. Another $332,000 is due to increased local tax revenue.
All those numbers are subject to change, and will likely change, Tant says, though the trends will stay on the improving side of things rather than its opposite.
The district is also planning to in crease its reserves again, after they were dipped into annually during the downturn. The reserves were at $8.2 million in 2010. They are projected to end this fiscal year at $4 million, or just 4.2 percent of the budget. Considering that a two-week pay period devours more than $3 million, the reserve is low. The plan in the coming fiscal year is to increase it to $4.3 million, and to $7.7 million the year after that.
The school property tax rate the millage rate is going down a little bit, but taxable values are going up 6.7 percent, which will result, in effect, in a tax increase, because the lower rate will still generate more revenue. (The school board holds the first of two public hearings on the tax rate and budget adoption in mid-July, with the second hearing set for Sept. 1).
The school district will seek out help from Palm Coast and the county to pick up the cost of its adults with disabilities program.
The capital budget is half what it used to be: $11.4 million for the coming year, compared to $24 million before the recession. That means the district cannot maintain its buildings as well as it once did, although it also means that the district is not growing, and not in need of new buildings. The largest project this year os the $2 million replacement of the air conditioning system at Indian Trails Middle School, which is almost 20 years old. The school was built in 1996. The coming year’s capital budget is slightly larger than this year’s $10.6 million. But little of it will remain.
“We’re spending most of our capital money,” Tant said. “The capital pressure for all the school districts in the state is critical,” to the point that some districts can’t afford to buy buses (which are paid for out of capital dollars). So they’re leasing them instead. That’s an option the Flagler district may consider.
Board members this morning each got a two-inch thick binder outlining the budget by department, by school and by fund: homework ahead of the coming hearings.
The more critical part of this morning’s budget discussion had nothing to do with the general fund. It veered toward the fate of the district’s adults with disabilities program, run by the Flagler Technical Institute, a branch of the district.
The program is losing its $535,000 state allocation after House and Senate leaders furtively cut it in last-minute budget dealings during the special session at mid-month. The Legislature added $40 million for adult education in another pot, but so far it’s unclear whether Flagler can use any of that money to pay for its two programs: Step Up and Community Inclusion, which tend to 87 clients with profound disabilities, who can do a certain level of work but usually cannot integrate into the regular work force. The programs have been around for years. They employ 11 people. They are popular, with a waiting list of 50. But as of Wednesday, they have no funding source.
On Tuesday, the board agreed to have FTI use revenue generated by its extended day program—about $120,000—as a patch over the next three months at least to keep the program’s doors open. Absent that decision, Kevin McCarthy, FTI’s director, would have had to inform staff and clients today that they could not come to work or to school Wednesday.
Over the next three months, the district will study whether it can cover the cost of the program with Medicaid dollars, which do in many circumstances provide $466 per client per month, though “that would still not cover all of our operating costs,” McCarthy said. And that’s assuming most clients qualify, or even qualifgy for the maximum amount. It’s a big assumption.
“Our only other option going forward is looking at a fee schedule, and the challenge with that is that many of our families are struggling as it is,” McCarthy said, so it would be “prohibitive for any of our families, they would determine to keep their adults home.” The cost to them would be in the range of $544 per month.
The district is working with families to get the Medicaid waivers. It’s working with Sen. Travis Hutson to tap into what state dollars may be available anew for adults-with-disabilities dollars. “That’s where the dollars are. That’s our best hope,” Superintendent Jacob Oliva said.
Beyond that, Oliva will be opening discussions with Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon and County Administrator Craig Coffey to explore possibilities of those local governments picking up a share of the cost. The board may ask for an inter-governmental meeting by August to further discuss the possibility.
“This is a shared responsibility and it may not be right for it to completely 100 percent rest on the shoulders of the school district,” Colleen Conklin, who chairs the school board, said. Ending the program, she said, “is not an option.”
There was no disagreement from her three colleagues on the board. (Sue Dickinson was absent on a family matter.)
“But I also don’t think we let our representatives off the hook, either,” Conklin said. “We didn’t create this issue.”