North Fla. Superintendents' Different Takes On Funding, New Policies From This Legislative Session

May 17, 2019

As the dust settles from this year’s legislative session, school district superintendents are evaluating funding and new policies handed down from state lawmakers. In North Florida, superintendents in three counties have different takes.

Conversations concerning public education in Florida are likely to include the state’s teacher shortage. And talks among state lawmakers this session were no exception. That’s why some legislative leaders have touted a roughly $75 dollar per-student increase in the Base Student Allocation, part of the funding formula for public schools. That amounts to about $364 million dollars in flexible funding, which they’ve been careful to point out can be used for teacher pay raises.

“Last year the word would’ve been ‘apprehensive,’ moving into last year about this time, especially after we were given our budget last year,” said Wakulla County Superintendent Bobby Pearce. He says he’s optimistic that a pay raise for teachers could come out of negotiations with the local teacher’s union this summer, based on the injection of flexible funds.

“This year’s budget, in comparison to last year, would give me a more hopeful outlook, definitely,” Pearce said.

In Bay County, which took the brunt of historically-destructive Hurricane Michael seven months ago, the district is dealing with the opposite of a teacher shortage. Bill Husfelt has been superintendent for more than a decade.

“Because we have lost so many students and teachers alike, we’re not going to have a problem recruiting teachers,” Husfelt said. “In fact, for the first time ever, we probably have more teachers than we need. So, we just last Friday notified 100 teachers that they don’t have jobs next year.”

Still, Husfelt is encouraged by the hike in flexible funds.

“I was very grateful for the increase in the Base Student Allocation. That really is what makes the difference. That is where we’re able to take funds to give raises and to try to do more than what we’ve actually been funded in the past,” Husfelt said.

Rocky Hanna is superintendent of Leon County Schools, home to the Capitol itself. He says even with the BSA increase, other factors make for an increase to Leon’s budget that’s less potent than advertised.

“Don’t be deceived by that $9.5 million dollars, because in reality, once you take out Best & Brightest, the other categoricals, along with the increased contributions to the FRS and healthcare, it’s really about $3.2 or $3.3 (million.) Which is still better than nothing,” Hanna said.

Modification to the Best & Brightest program was another project of the Republican-controlled legislature. The program gives bonuses to teachers and principals based on reaching certain performance benchmarks. Changes to the program also removed a barrier for qualifying that was based on teachers’ past SAT and ACT scores. Hanna and Husfelt have different takes on the updated bonus structure.

At a recent school board meeting, Hanna pointed out what he feels is a hole in one piece of the formula.

“The other piece, schools that show an increase over a three-year period of time of three points or more, and who are deemed highly effective or effective will be eligible to receive the bonus, right?”

But Hanna says there’s a catch.

“A number of our schools that are A schools that, because they’re points are already so high, may not show that 3-point growth over those years,” Hanna said. “So we’ll have teachers potentially at A schools, that are highly effective, that may not receive a penny.”

But to Husfelt, the Best & Brightest changes – particularly the provision concerning teacher’s SAT and ACT scores – is a bright spot in the budget.

“There was a huge increase in the Best & Brightest program, and there (were) some legal changes in the language of that, which we think will make it much better and more fair for teachers to be eligible for it,” Husfelt said. “And I think that’s one thing that will make a huge difference for a lot of individuals.”

One piece of legislation pushed through this session leaves districts with a big decision, whether to allow teachers to be armed. Districts also have the option to hire trained “guardians” whose sole job is school security, or contract with a security firm.

“We’re obviously on the record how we feel about this program, we don’t need to go there again,” Hanna said at a recent school board meeting.

Superintendent Hanna has been an outspoken critic of the Guardian Program. But he says he and other superintendents may not have a say in whether charter schools in their districts participate.

“Charter schools could request, if they so choose, to implement the guardian program. So one of our four charters can come to us, apply, and then it would be left up to us as to whether or not we approved,” Hanna said.

But, Hanna says, even a ‘no’ from the local school board couldn’t stop a charter from participating.

“Even if we did not grant them permission, they could still go around us and get permission,” Hanna said. “And even if they did not get the go-ahead and training from our local sheriff, they could partner with a neighboring sheriff and receive the training.”

In Bay County, Husfelt takes the opposite position.

“We participate in the guardian this current year, and we’re going to participate in it next year,” Husfelt said.

Husfelt says that willingness to participate is based on prior experience.

“I think one of the unique situations in our district – and I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but our district was held hostage by a gunman nine years ago. And there is no way that anyone understands the helplessness you feel when someone’s got a gun pointed at you, and you have no way to protect yourself or intervene, or anything,” Husfelt said.

For the Bay superintendent, it boils down to trust in his teachers.

“I know in my district, almost every one of our teachers would do anything to protect a child from getting shot,” Husfelt said. “And I think the least we can do is help those that can be trained, that can meet the requirements, for the psychological background, the background screening and all that, they can do that to give them a fighting chance.”

DeSantis signed expansions to the Guardian Program into law last week.