Florida’s rural school districts are in trouble, and nowhere is the crisis more apparent than in North Florida’s Jefferson County. The district only has about 800 students left, and it has been consistently at the bottom of the heap when it comes to academics. Now it’s in financial trouble, and it's not the first time. Now, some worry other rural counties are also at risk.
Two years Jefferson County School Superintendent Al Cooksey was hopeful his district was headed for a turnaround.
“We’ve made lots of changes and hopefully it’ll pay off for our kids cause we’ve failed them for the past eight to ten years," he said at the time. “This is an exciting year. We’re going to see the changes we made last year and hopefully they’ll continue to help our kids get a better education.”
It was the first day of school for the 2014-2015 school year. Cooksey had only been on the job for a year, and there were new administrators in place. But today the district finds itself facing the same problems that have plagued it for more than a decade: crumbling infrastructure, low teacher morale, high principal and administrative turnover, a shrinking student population and chronically low performing schools. The result:
“If this were a business, it’s already gone bankrupt," said John Padget, a member of Florida's board of education.
Paget made that comment in July as Cooksey stood before the board, laying out the districts woes.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do. That’s why I came down here and sat all day," Cooksey said.
The state education board is now intervening financially. Members have thrown out suggestions: convert Jefferson into a charter school district, merge it with a neighbor.
“I’m curious. Is there a mechanism for a district to be taken over?” Board Chairwoman Marva Johnson asked.
Short answer: no. “Constitutionally, and in law, school districts are responsible for their schools and their district," said Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, though she adds there could be opportunity for partnerships between systems.
This is the second time in eight years Jefferson has found itself in financial distress. The district is also the worst-performing academically in the state. Students that have had the means to leave have done so. They’re enrolled in neighboring Leon and Wakulla County Schools, private schools in Jefferson—even Thomasville. Students that remain are those who cannot afford to go elsewhere. Jefferson County Commissioner Betsy Barfield, says people are fed up.
“They are truly disgusted with how far down our school system has gone. They no longer have confidence that it can be fixed with the current path we’ve taken.”
The state funds schools based on the number of kids enrolled. And departures, largely due to school choice laws, have been crippling. The situation in Jefferson is critical, but its problems are not unique. Five counties to the west, is Liberty. Its county commission and its sheriff recently sparred before the Florida Cabinet over funding. The sheriff, a constitutional officer, says his budget is too low. County attorney, Robin Myers, says the county just doesn’t have the money.
“Our median household income is $36,000. That’s with two people working. I say that because we have the lowest unemployment rate in the state. Everyone who can work, is working, and we’re taxing them to the fullest extent possible. So where do we come up with the money to give the sheriff?”
Most of Liberty County is protected land. It has few jobs, few industries, and doesn’t collect much in property taxes because most of its homes are under the state property tax cap with additional breaks for seniors. It’s a similar story in Gadsden County, where there are schools for sale.
“We are facing a crisis if you will, in our small rural counties," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. Montford's sprawling North Florida district encompasses nearly a dozen counties, many of them, like Jefferson and Liberty, small and rural.
“And it’s not just education. It’s transportation. It’s healthcare, its infrastructure. Never before in the history of the state have we seen such a diverse set of circumstances. Rural counties have taken it on the chin, now.”
Florida’s rural counties, and schools are struggling, Montford said, and in the case of Jefferson, it may be time for legislative intervention.