School Districts Pinched By Slow Recovery In State Education Funding

Apr 4, 2016

Next year’s state budget boasts what Governor Scott has called record funding for K-12 education. After deep cuts spurred by the Recession, per-pupil spending, known as FEFP, or Florida Education Finance Program has indeed hit a new high—but not when you account for inflation. In real terms, the state’s contribution is down nearly 8%, and Florida school districts have to make do with the difference.

Every morning at Palm Lakes Elementary School in Hialeah, Principal Alina Iglesias bounces from the drive-through drop off outside school to the hallway where students gather to go to class. “Line up Line up Line up!” she tells a raucous group of third graders. “I multitask, you’ll see,” she adds.

Depending on the help she gets from parent volunteers, Iglesias punches in as a security guard, a hall monitor, and a clerk all before the first bell rings. Iglesias insists that cooperative spirit should be part of any principal’s job description.

Here, though, it has ramped up in the lean years since the Recession, especially during back to school season. “If I need a weedwhacker, I get a weedwhacker and we all weedwhack,” Iglesias explains with a shrug. “We’re getting ready to open schools? We all need to clean windows, scrub floors. Everybody pitches in.”

To offset staffing shortages at Palm Lakes Elementary School in Hialeah, Principal Alina Iglesias says she doubles as a custodian, a clerk, and a security guard as the need arises.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety

Like most of the country, Florida’s property taxes are a driving force behind school funding. When the housing crisis hit, the total value of the property that generates those taxes dropped by almost half. Cuts to school board budgets followed suit. The Miami-Dade District cut more than half the positions in its central office; it eliminated assistant principals and librarians, and cut hours for custodians.

Karen Rivo, a local parent and longtime volunteer, sits on a committee of parents and community members that advises Miami-Dade, school board on budget issues. “The choice came down to what would do the least harm to the classroom,” she says. “But at some point, we had to go into the classroom.” Those cuts hit school supplies and increased class sizes for electives like business and art. “We sat around and we would look at each other and just sigh sometimes,” Rivo recalls of meetings during the Recession.

Five years ago, Florida teachers took a hit when the legislature cut public employee salaries to help cover pension costs.

Ron Steiger, Chief Budget Officer for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, says the district has responded by trying to steer new funding back into teacher pay. “There’s no question that even though we’ve done that, it’s more difficult to be a public school employee today than it was eight years ago, financially.” Steiger says despite the fact that state funding for education has rebounded alongside recovering property values, “it isn’t enough to keep up with basic expenditures, let alone the cost of living in Miami.” Steiger offered the example of employee benefits: increases in the district’s health insurance costs next year are projected to be higher than the total increase in per-pupil funding from Tallahassee.

More broadly, the recovery of state education funding hasn’t been enough to undo cuts made during the Recession.Take school buses: some students used to get a ride to school from a mile and a half away--a decision often made to boost attendance or insure schoolchildrens’ safe passage through busy or dangerous neighborhoods.  For many districts, says Ruth Melton, Director of Government Relations for the Florida School Boards Association, the new cutoff might be two miles. “Two miles, for a fourth grader, is not a short walk,” Melton says.

This year’s student transportation allocation includes some $50 million less than 2007-2008, even though the school system must now transport an additional 170,000 students. The same is true for a number of programs funded by the FEFP—serving more students with less money than before the Recession.

“Florida tends to be among the first states to feel a Recession, and we also tend to be one of the last states to emerge from it,” Melton says. This time around, tax cuts have limited state revenues even as the economy has recovered. Nick Albares, an analyst with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC, says Florida is one of more than 30 states that spend less on education now than they did before the Recession. “Unfortunately, that is the new normal in too many places,” he says, even as most states have begun to restore funding incrementally.  

Palm Lakes Principal Alina Iglesias says the new normal has some benefits too. Cuts in Miami-Dade have forced the district to become more efficient: lights and air conditioning no longer stay on during vacations just for spring cleaning. But those changes can only go so far. The woman who runs her school’s computer system now does tech support for two schools…

    “It all gets done, right Sheri?” Iglesias asks as they pass in the hallway. “Yes,” Sheri answers after a pause. But it would be nice, she says, to go back to one school.