Polk education officials urge veto on ‘hurtful’ budget

Image result for Polk education officials urge veto on ‘hurtful’ budgetPolk County school officials called the Florida Legislature’s budget “hurtful,” “unconscionable” and “impossible for us to afford services for our schools to operate properly.”

BARTOW — Polk County school officials called the Florida Legislature’s budget “hurtful,” “unconscionable” and “impossible for us to afford services for our schools to operate properly.”

Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd issued a statement late Monday evening just hours after the Legislature passed its $82.4 billion budget, which is now on its way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

“I’m appealing to the public like never before to understand the unfortunate financial situation that has overshadowed our school system,” Byrd wrote. “We need your support to join other school districts across Florida in asking Gov. Rick Scott to veto proposed cuts to the education budget.”

Byrd is also asking Scott to veto House Bill 7069 — a $419 million bill with dozens of policies affecting public education, including a new formula that would cause districts to share with charter schools millions in local tax revenue and regulations on how Title I funds are distributed.

“The bill contains Title I language that will have a negative impact on our neediest of schools,” Byrd wrote. “If this bill passes, we stand to lose 136 federal positions, including reading, math and science coaches, and support that has aided our low-performing schools.”

And while the bill includes a $234 million bonus package for teachers and principals, the district would rather have money to put toward raises.

“Our message has been consistent that our teachers and principals deserve permanent raises and not temporary bonuses that don’t count towards retirement,” Wendy Dodge, the district’s director of legislative affairs, wrote in an email to School Board members. “Historically, legislatively created bonus programs have lasted less than three years.”

School Board member Billy Townsend has nicknamed the bill “Schools of Fraud” — a play on the Legislature’s “Schools of Hope” name. The bill includes a $140 million program to incentivize privately managed charter schools to move in where traditional public schools are struggling.

“To call it detrimental is silly — it’s an all out assault on community education, an all out assault on our teachers and an all out assault on our kids,” Townsend said. “They think, ‘How can we take current traditional schools and find ways to maker their lives harder and make money off of them for our friends?’”

Byrd also took issue with how the bill came about — on the last day of the session without the opportunity for public input after being negotiated behind closed doors.

“There is no transparency!” she said.

As for the budget, funding per student will go up about $24 to $7,221 statewide, but the base student allocation for some school districts, including Polk, will go down based on a formula that takes into account varying local property tax bases, education program costs, costs of living and costs for equivalent educational programs due to sparsity, and dispersion of the student population, according to the Florida Department of Education.

BSA funds are used for student programs, teacher salaries and benefits.

School Board members and district staff have argued to legislators that the formula does not benefit Polk and districts like it.

Polk stands to receive $8 less per student this year than last year, and $174.60 less per student than 10 years ago, according to Byrd. That’s a $5.6 million shortfall to the district’s $1 billion budget — or 80 instructional positions plus operating expenses, she said.

“We remain one of the lowest funded districts in the state, ranking 64th of 67 school districts in per-student funding,” Byrd wrote. “Polk County is now the seventh largest school district in Florida, with 101,500 students — 770 more students than Pinellas County, the next largest district.

“With that kind of growth in student population, the legislature’s budget makes it impossible for us to afford services for our schools to operate properly.”

Marianne Capoziello, president of the Polk Education Association, called it “unconscionable, what they did with their state budget.”

The PEA represents teachers, paraprofessionals and secretaries, and the union has been at impasse with the district since January with the biggest dispute being over raises. The parties are going before a special magistrate this week.

“Teachers are feeling disheartened and understand now more than ever that the Florida legislative body cares nothing for their plight, what it takes to financially educate students or what it takes to make sure we have the type of wages that gain and retain the best and brightest for our students,” Capoziello said. “It is a sad day and we call upon and stand with school board associations, superintendents and districts across the state of Florida in asking Gov. Scott to veto this.”

If Scott vetoes the state budget, lawmakers will have to return for a special session to recalculate.

Townsend and School Board members Lori Cunningham, Sara Beth Reynolds and Lynn Wilson hope that will be the case.

Wilson hopes that Scott will send legislators back to the table and that the lawmakers will reach out to communities to find out what they need.

“I would like to have more of an opportunity to share some of the concerns from an education perspective with our legislators so that we can talk through some of the issues and find appropriate solutions,” Wilson said.

Cunningham said she has been doing just that. She doesn’t want teachers spending their summer vacations worrying that they won’t have a job to come back to because of budget cuts, she said.

“I’m going to fight really hard because I do not want there to be any changes in staffing for next year,” Cunningham said. “I know we don’t have the money based on the budget that just passed, but I want our employees to remain employed for the next school year.”

Reynolds called the budget and bill hurtful and disappointing.

“We’re getting less to educate our students — it’s not feasible to maintain the level of services we currently provide and to be able to function as a school system,” Reynolds said. “We want to be able to do what’s right and what’s best for all of these kids, but we have to be funded.

“I urge everyone to call the governor’s office and make sure that he understands that the community is concerned,” she added. “He has a great opportunity to veto (them) and give us a chance to not get hurt.”

School Board members Kay Fields, Tim Harris and Hazel Sellers were not available for comment Tuesday.

Madison Fantozzi can be reached at [email protected] or 863-401-6971. Follow her on Twitter @madisonfantozzi.


Related Articles

Back to top button