The Florida Department of Education is taking over financial oversight of the Jefferson County School District for the second time. A committee is being created to examine the district’s budget and keep it from going into the red.
There are only about 800 students left in Jefferson—most now attend private schools or those in neighboring counties. The state projects Jefferson schools will run a three-percent budget deficit this school year. Furthermore, the district continues to struggle academically. State Board of Education members Gary Chartrand says it may be time for Jefferson to be merged with a larger, neighboring district.
“It just doesn’t make sense a district this small has to incorporate all the costs of running a district when their student count is around 800," he said during the state board's phone meeting Friday.
Board member John Padget is floating the idea of converting the district into a charter. At issue is a lack of resources, crumbling infrastructure and poverty. There’s not enough left in Jefferson to support schools. The state intervened financially between 2009 and 2011. And while Jefferson may be the first school district to be in such a state, it’s problems are largely shared by other small, rural districts, says Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who represents a large number of rural counties in North Florida.
“Clearly, the state has to do something. And this is not in surprise in Jefferson County and it shouldn’t be a surprise when other counties have healthcare needs and so on.”
Many of Florida’s rural counties can’t generate enough tax revenue to support their basic healthcare and educational needs. Montford suggests Chartrand's idea may run into constitutional problems, but he does agree with the reasoning. Jefferson is in need of serious help, and he suggests the state legislature may end up getting involved. Jefferson County Commissioner Betsy Barfield hopes so.
"Whatever happens," she says, "it's going to be drastic."
Original Story: The Florida Board of Education has called an emergency meeting to address Jefferson County School District's financial woes. The move was triggered after the district reported it's savings had fallen below the mandatory threshold set by the state. That was back in May. In July, the state asked the district to submit a plan for shoring up its funds, but as Education Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote in a letter to the district, that plan wasn't acceptable.
"Despite having sent my staff to the district to review the information submitted, neither of the plans propose actions that can be reasonably anticipated to avoid a financial emergency in the school district," Stewart said.
Among her concerns:
- While the district has proposed to cut staff positions in the amount $ 172,945, these cuts were all to instructional positions, and no reductions in district administrative positions were proposed.
- The district failed to fund costs of $296,928 associated with improving its low-performing schools, which Jefferson officially presented to the State Board of Education on July 20, 2016.
- The district improperly included energy savings of $68,972 from a new HVAC (projected to cost $2,300,000) that has not yet been purchased or installed.
- The district included budgeted savings of $22,577 related to fuel efficiencies based on buses not yet purchased and eliminated bus routes with no documentation.
- The district included $28,540 of budgeted savings with no explanation or supporting documentation.
There's also the issue regarding audit problems in federal grants. And the state writes it estimates Jefferson County Schools will be running over budget by more than three percent. The problems aren't new for the tiny, rural North Florida district.
This story will be updated later in the day.