Miami-Dade School Board wants more flexibility in Gov. Scott’s budget

Miami-Dade County Public Schools officials commended Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday on his “bold” proposal to increase education spending by $1.2 billion.

They just wished it didn’t come with so many strings, or the threat of an unintended spike in healthcare costs. And a little money for a cash-strapped schools maintenance budget would have been nice.

“We will have our work cut out for us as we head back to Tallahassee” for the start of the legislative session, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told board members during their monthly meeting.

According to figures presented Wednesday by Carvalho’s cabinet, Scott’s massive spending boost would translate locally into a $157 million increase in state funding — if approved by the Legislature. Board members acknowledged that getting the funding approved will be a challenge.

Under the proposal, Dade would get:

• $57 million toward $2,500 teacher pay raises, and another $23 million to pay for correlating pension costs.

• $35 million for McKay scholarships, which go to private school tuition for children with special needs.

• $13 million in technology grants.

• $9 million in school recognition bonuses and gift certificates.

• $8 million for fund balances.

• $6 million for an expected increase of 1,400 students.

After all that is paid for, the district, which has an annual budget of some $4 billion, is left with $6 million to spend as it pleases.

“The governor’s level of funding is good,” said Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, assistant superintendent for Intergovernmental Affairs. “However, it provides a lot of restrictive uses for those funds.”

The budget proposed by Scott, who will visit South Pointe Elementary in Miami Beach on Thursday, also provides no money for public school maintenance for the third straight year. Charter schools in the district, however, will receive more than $20 million, according to the district.

A chart illustrating the point stated, “ALL state capital funds have been redirected to charter schools … where it goes into the pockets of private landowners.”

The district will soon be the beneficiary of capital dollars under a $1.2-billion bond referendum approved in November by voters. But Chief Financial Officer Richard Hinds said funds from the sale of bonds can’t be used for everyday maintenance, which he said remains “a serious problem.”

Hoping to tweak spending, Mendez-Cartaya said the district will lean on State Rep. Erik Fresen, who is head of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Fresen, who has ties to charter school management company Academica, has the district’s legislative wish list, she said.

In a text message Wednesday, Fresen said, “I have always advocated for the best position for MDCPS and all of Florida’s public schools and will make sure they have the resources and flexibility necessary for our kids’ success in the classroom.”

Representatives of Miami-Dade schools will also be lobbying to repeal a state law that forces the district to spend 15 percent of its federal Title 1 dollars on a troubled tutoring program for students at schools that have been identified as struggling for more than one year. The district says it must spend $6.6 million this year on the program officials say is “made up primarily of for-profit providers delivering tutoring to students, with limited accountability for improving academic outcomes.”

School Board members agreed Wednesday to oppose the mandated spending due in part to a recent Tampa Bay Times series that found the Supplemental Educational Services programs are rife with conflicts and sometimes provide tax dollars to criminals.

Coincidentally, a former tutor through the program, Erika Raquel Robinson, was sentenced Wednesday to five years probation for fraud and theft, according to the Office of the Inspector General of Miami-Dade County. Robinson was charged in 2011 after investigators said her tutoring company, Devine Sports, billed Miami-Dade County Public Schools for $1.5 million in services at inner-city schools that included tutoring for “phantom” students.

She pleaded guilty to 47 felony counts.

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