In the realm of education politics, 2010 may be the year of déjà vu.
Education officials in Lee and Collier counties say their chief political concern this year will be a renewed push to find a stable source of funding for schools in Florida. This worry reigned supreme as a priority of the Florida Education Association and the Florida School Boards Associations in 2008 and 2009.
In 2009, those groups got behind a proposed “penny tax” that would have added an extra 1 percent sales tax to benefit public grade schools and colleges in the state. That measure failed, but local educators are still beating the war drum of education funding for the coming year.
Last month, Lee Schools Superintendent James Browder said the state’s superintendents were informed that Florida would likely reduce per-student funding by about $32. With the Lee district’s nearly 80,000 students, that would equal roughly $2.5 million out of a $1.42 billion budget. Lee officials, anticipating such mid-year cuts, reduced programs accordingly before the start of the school year, including cutting the budget in half for elementary arts and music education.
“To be honest with you, the major issue with all of us is the money,” Browder said. “What’s the money situation going to be? Will we be able to manage what we have, given the dollars that are available? I’m very concerned about finances. That’s the biggest issue. ... Reducing again is an issue that scares all of us.”
With the benefit of some federal stimulus funding, the Lee County School District got roughly as much funding for the current school year from the state as it received in 2008-09. However, due to declining property values, the district had to increase local taxes in order to bring in as much money locally as it did the previous year. In addition, the district has faced mid-year budget cuts from the state in the past two years, along with districts across the state.
“I do think the level of activism from parents made the difference,” said Bob Cerra, a lobbyist for the Lee County School District, in talking about state schools avoiding deeper cuts during the 2009 legislative session. “(Parents) are frankly the only possible way that the same thing is going to happen again.”
The Collier County School District was able to maintain all of its academic and athletic programs for the 2009-10 school year, thanks in part to a referendum voters passed in November 2008. The referendum allowed the district to move .25 mills from its capital budget, which pays for new buildings and things such as new turf on high school football fields, to its operating budget, which pays for salaries and student programs.
But that is not to say there weren’t some changes to hit Collier schools, particularly the high schools. High school students were placed on a seven-period day schedule, rather than the four-by-four block. The students lost one credit per year, which saved the district millions, but also cut about 80 teaching positions.
Collier County School Board member Pat Carroll, who serves as the board’s legislative liaison, said funding is a great concern for all school districts. That said, Collier County will not lobby the state for more funding, Carroll said.
“We have to balance concerns for the taxpayers as well as our own programming,” she said. “We will not ask for more funding, but any cuts (in funding) would severely hurt us. ... We also need the Legislature to give us flexibility in the use of the money we do have.”
Rolled into this issue is the final phase of implementation for the class-size reduction amendment, which is expected to cost another $350 million statewide, between $5 million and $8 million in Lee County and at least $14.6 million in Collier County.
Carroll said the Collier County School District will also lobby the Legislature to allow school districts to educate English Language Learners (ELL) for at least two years before those students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). The state requires the district to administer the FCAT to ELL students who have been in school one year and one day.
“That’s huge. It’s not fair to the kids and it is not fair to the school districts,” Carroll said. “We need the extra time to prepare those kids.”
From Lee County, Cerra said he will ask the Legislature to consider some measures that would not require extra funding, including one to relax a statutory requirement dictating when the school year should start. Browder has said an earlier start would allow students in national courses, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, to get more instructional time before their final exams, which currently fall several weeks before the end of the school year.
Cerra said he will also follow the development of issues revolving around the federal Race to the Top grants, which Florida is seeking, and some districts are also hoping to get a piece of, including Lee. Collier is not applying for the grants.
“Everything is going to boil down to the money,” said Cerra. “And if they can afford to fund a quality system at the top, we can provide a quality one here locally.”
Aside from hot political issues, the makeup of both school boards has the potential to change in 2010, with a majority of seats in both counties coming up for re-election.
In Collier and Lee counties, three out of five school board seats are up for reelection.
In Collier County, District 1, which is represented by Pat Carroll; District 3, which is represented by Steve Donovan; and District 5, which until Dec. 31 was represented by Richard Calabrese, are up for grabs.
Neither Carroll or Donovan have filed to seek re-election, though both have until June 18 to file. Should they seek another term, both will have opponents. Eric Cox, chief executive officer of Management Pathways, LLC, and the husband of former Manatee Elementary School Principal Connie Cox, is seeking Carroll’s seat. Reg Buxton, Naples Journals publisher, is seeking Donovan’s seat.
Calabrese announced his resignation in October. Gov. Charlie Crist has yet to appoint his replacement, although 21 people have applied. Three of those people have also filed paperwork to seek Calabrese’s seat come November. They are: Mary Ellen Cash, an instructional specialist for Collier County schools; retired Palmetto Ridge High School Principal Roy Terry; and Joe Whitehead,a retired Naples Police Department detective.
In Lee County, seats held by three incumbents are open for re-election: Robert Chilmonik, District 1; Elinor Scricca, District 5; and Steven Teuber, District 4. All three were first elected to office in 2002, and reseated in 2006.
Both Chilmonik and Scricca have filed paperwork with the Lee County Supervisor of Elections to run again; Teuber has not. He did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.
No other candidates have filed paperwork or signatures in Lee County to indicate their desire to seek one of the open seats, though any new candidates, as well as Teuber, have until the June 18 qualifying deadline to do so.