Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy put it bluntly in her opening remarks to the state legislators who represent Polk County in the House and Senate.
“We are experiencing a critical shortage of funding,” said LeRoy. One of the areas funding is urgently needed is maintaining current schools, many that are aged. “In terms of Polk County, we’re unique in that we have a lot of old buildings that are aged beyond their years. We’re at a point with some of the buildings where it would be economically feasible to rebuild as opposed to try to renovate.”
LeRoy said the Board of Education and school administration was also asking the Legislature allow it the ability to raise its millage rate by 0.05 mills (i.e., 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable value for property taxes). To ensure this would not be abused, she said, a super-majority vote by the Board would be required.
If approved, which would be a modification of Florida Statute 1011.71, it would generate an estimated $12 million in capital outlay or operational funding. The argument was made that the additional funding was being sought because the current millage rate of 1.5 mills was insufficient to meet payments. LeRoy added what has exacerbated the situation is that the sharp decrease in capital outlay funding is due in part to the drop in property values, reduced PECO (Public Education Capital Outlay) funding, a redirection of 0.5 mill of capital funding to operating, and an increased requirement for technology within school districts. In its agenda, the Polk County Public Schools states that in the past, school boards had been granted statutory authority by the legislature to levy additional local millage for a period of two years.
PECO is a state program that provides funds to school districts derived from a tax collected on the gross receipts from the sale of utility services. Source: http://www.leg.state.fl.us.
After presenting four other requests, termed priorities, conversation among school board members, administration and legislators would return to the first topic.
“We really are in a big hole when it comes to capital needs,” said School Board member Hunt Berryman. “Let us have that half mill.” Even if approved, that increase would not cover future needs, but having that ability to raise the millage rate was worth it for him. “We’re willing to take the hit with our public to do that.”
Simply maintaining what currently is in place was significant, according to School Board member Hazel Sellers.
“This would be needed, just to maintain the upkeep,” Sellers said, who added it was shocking to learn how extensive the needs were, which she said were overwhelming.
When legislators engaged with questions and answers, Rep. Seth McKeel commented that the situation would be slightly improved as property values are beginning to climb. He did, however, point out there existed a difference between school systems throughout the state and Tallahassee as to what extent property values would improve. Regardless, he said he expected capital outlay funds would rise.
Classroom size still persists as a thorn in the side of Polk County Public Schools, but the school system has not faltered, LeRoy told legislators.
“I would say we’re one of the few school districts in Florida able to do that,” LeRoy said. What would be preferable would be to return to a previous model. That was rather than conform to individual classrooms, to base classroom size on a school-wide basis. It would redirect a projected $6-8 million dollars that would be used to support teaching and learning. “I’m a firm believer of our teachers having more time to teach.”
McKeel said he was in 100 percent agreement, but expressed his belief that a constitutional pathway to get there has been created.
“Have you challenged the wording?” McKeel asked.
The final word came from School Board member Lori Cunningham. She had, she said, received numerous phone calls from parents, especially those who had one child in one school and another child attending a different school because of the classroom size restriction. In a number of instances, these children have to attend schools far away.
“It’s a heartache,” Cunningham said. She reminded legislators that Polk County is one of the largest counties in Florida. She said that while there is merit in not having a classroom with 45 students, there has to be a more practical resolution.
The third priority, which involved local control and flexibility addressed what the Polk County Public Schools considered a duplication of services through what is the Differentiated Accountability. Essentially, if a school has received a grade of “D” or “F” to have to adhere to specific stipulations established by the State Board of Education. The contention was this means extra funding, as well as a duplication of services. On top of that, there was also cannibalism of personnel by the Polk County Schools System. Once trained, these people then go to work for the state at regional Florida Department of Education because the state pays better. Returning local control would return between $1.5-$2.5 million.
Legislators were also made aware that Polk County Public Schools face problems with the VPK (Voluntary Pre-K) program, primarily because it does not align with the school year calendar. Passed in 2002 by voters to become a constitutional amendment, the program offers free education services to 4 year olds in either a 540 hour school year program or 300 hour summer program. The school system wants the program to consist of the 540 hour model and align with a traditional school day as those held for kindergarten to 12th grade.
The final legislative action raised concerned charter schools. The call was for the “playing field to be level.” That means applying the same laws, rules and regulations to charter schools as are required of public schools. That included class size requirements, student selection and establishment of high performing status, among other requirements.
In all, should the requested measures be enacted, the total amount of monies returned to or remaining within the school system would be between an estimated $19.5-$22.5 million. But that was not the only purpose. Dick Mullenax, this year’s School Board chairman weighed in on the priorities.
“Most of the things we’re requesting is re-directing things,” said Mullenax. “We’re not asking for new funds.”