Education

Budget uncertainty leaves school districts struggling

Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie
Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie Miami Herald staff

The early end to this year’s legislative session, without an approved budget, has put Florida school district leaders on edge.

Even in normal circumstances, school boards often struggle to craft spending plans largely dictated by state funding formulas. This year, they face the task without any hard numbers as a starting point.

Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie called the situation “a huge problem.”

“It creates a little bit of chaos in our budgeting process,” Runcie said. “Schools are on a cycle. We have to give them their budgets so they can determine what programs to offer, how many teachers to hire. The only thing we can do now is go on last year’s budget, which means zero new investment in public schools.”

School districts begin their fiscal year July 1, although they don’t have to adopt a budget until September. That means they regularly operate each fall on tentative plans, using money carried over from the previous year.

Districts routinely face changes in their state revenue, as their enrollments ebb and flow between official student counts. The difference now is that lawmakers have not settled issues such as how much money schools will get per student and whether districts will share tax money dedicated to construction and renovation costs with charter schools.

Usually, school boards spend May and June writing their line-by-line spending plans, using legislative budgets as a guide. State law requires them to get the heavy lifting done in time to publish their proposed tax rates within 29 days of receiving a taxable value certification from property appraisers, which comes no later than July 1.

Yet the Florida Legislature appears unlikely to convene a budget special session until June. The disrupted timetable is less a concern for county and municipal governments, which start their new fiscal years Oct. 1.

But for school districts, the issue is more pressing. And the disconnect between the information they need and what they have is frustrating superintendents.

Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego called the situation “exceedingly difficult.”

Said Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning: “We can’t spend money we don’t have. It can’t just be on paper.”

Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho was more optimistic. Carvalho said the situation was “obviously not optimal.”

“But considering what we know about the original intentions of the governor, the House and the Senate, we have a fairly good idea of where the budget is likely to end up,” he said.

House Budget chairman Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, said school officials had nothing to fear.

“I feel confident that the FEFP will go up,” Corcoran said, referencing the Florida Education Finance Program formula that is used to award state tax dollars to local school districts.

With state economists projecting a $1 billion budget surplus late last year, education spending seemed sure to receive a boost.

The budget proposals from the House, Senate and Republican Gov. Rick Scott all increased per-student spending — even while accounting for a projected spike in enrollment. Scott wanted to set spending at $7,176 per student, about $50 more than the record high from 2007-08.

That amount fell into doubt in February, when the federal government confirmed it would not renew a key hospital funding program known as the Low Income Pool “in its current form.”

State healthcare officials are hoping the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will approve a proposed successor to the LIP program. But if the negotiations fall through, Florida could be facing a $1.3 billion hole in its healthcare budget.

How lawmakers would plug the potential gap is anyone’s guess.

Neither Scott nor the House is anxious to use surplus money. Both have proposed tax-cut packages of nearly $700 million. The more moderate Senate also wants to cut taxes but concedes it might not be possible this year.

Because education spending accounts for nearly one-third of the overall $80 billion budget, it would be a likely target if lawmakers need to cut spending.

Last month, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, offered to use $200 million in state money to help the hospitals. Of that total, $120 million came from K-12 spending.

The Senate rejected the offer.

Knowing all this, districts are proceeding cautiously.

Lobbyists for Hillsborough County schools recently told their School Board to begin budgeting using the current year’s figures and projecting for growth. That effort would account for added funding, but not count on the highest numbers tossed around in Tallahassee committee rooms.

Carvalho said the Miami-Dade district would not be deterred from making progress on its budget.

He said the unusual budget situation could even help school systems.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “The time delay may result in some creative solutions to the healthcare budget, which could free up general revenue to be invested in education.”

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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