Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Brevard School Board Budget: Breaks the Law, Lacks Priorities

Let me begin by congratulating the taxpayers of Brevard on their generosity.  We are truly a generous bunch, paying for Brevard high school students to take over 5000 college courses in the coming year.  Too bad our generosity, and the high school students' precocious education, comes at the expense of younger students.  While I believe the Dual Enrollment program presents a great opportunity for Brevard's high school students, I also believe its budgetary requirements (projected to be between $3.8 and $5.2 million for the 2013-14 school year) are detrimental to Brevard's younger students.  While bright, proactive high school students  attend courses at BCC, FIT and other public and private universities completely free of charge, 3 Brevard county schools will be shuttered, along with countless innovative educational opportunities being cut for younger students.  I don't begrudge anyone higher education, but I have real misgivings about paying for someone else's kids to go to college when mine aren't getting the programs they need in elementary school.  

As has been reported, the Brevard County School Board has decided to ignore current state law during the 2013-14 school year by not following guidelines set in the Class Size Amendment, approved by voters in 2002, with support reinforced by voters in 2010 when the legislature tried unsuccessfully to repeal it.  Instead, the School Board has decided to eliminate teachers, pay a fine, and lose its designation as a "high performing district."  I'll be the first to admit that I was hugely disappointed when the Half-Cent Sales Tax referendum failed last November, but I can't justify the district flouting the state Constitution in the name of cost savings, especially when postsecondary education is being treated as a sacred cow.  

At last night's school board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Brian Binggeli did a fine job of presenting a breakdown of the financial figures currently known by the district in its budgeting for the 2013-14 school year.  The unknown numbers rest squarely on the shoulders of Florida state legislators, who lassoed Governor Scott's $480 million education budget with enough strings to hang an elephant.  The appropriations bill left very little wiggle room in how the funds were to be spent.  Of the recent $22.6 million allocation of funds from the state, the School Board is required to spend $225,885 on new instructional materials, $2.5 million to fully fund the district's retirement benefits, $1.6 million for the employee health insurance trust fund, and $329,335 on teacher lead allocation.   The $12.6 allocated by the state for teacher raises may end up putting the School Board back in the red, depending on whether the District has to pay FICA and fringe benefits on top of the increased compensation.  That leaves just over $5 million for Brevard Public Schools, which will likely be swallowed up by dual-enrollment expenses.  

College is a looming expense for most parents, but when your children, just starting out in school, are subjected to numerous cuts and possible closures, it is unsettling to know that tax dollars are being spent on early college for high school students, rather than funding classrooms that meet constitutional class size guidelines.  In fact, Brevard taxpayers will be paying a higher bill than usual for high school students to earn college credit because the state legislature voted that school districts must now pay the customary portion of FTE (Full Time Equivalent) and tuition and fees.  Also infuriating to a mother who just wants to see kids thrive in neighborhood schools, without the threat of closure and teacher cuts: the legislature's gifts to Florida Virtual School.  While Brevard taxpayers can be praised for generosity toward high school students using public education tax dollars to pay for college credits, the Florida legislature can be praised for its generosity to the Florida Virtual School and its corporate partners.  In the new budget, Brevard County lost $6.2 million in funding, as it was siphoned to Florida Virtual Schools through legislation.  Florida students are already required to take an online class through Florida Virtual School, paid for out of the School Board's funds.  Even a student completing the virtual course in a Brevard public school lab will result in reduced funding for the district, with a portion of that student's FTE (Full Time Equivalent) going to the coffers of Florida Virtual School.  Full-time Brevard public school students that take an extra course through Florida Virtual School after school hours or during the summer also reduce the funding received by the Brevard County School Board.  

I'm not old-fashioned- I recognize that technology and innovation are crucial to the success of students. However, kindergartners can't finance their literacy education the way a high school graduate can finance a college education.  It's time Brevard Public Schools makes the right hard decision: to  prioritize elementary and secondary education over the dual enrollment program until the budget shortfall is resolved.