School Board members divided over funding about $5.7 million for new personnel that the incoming superintendent has proposed

Todd Bowden recommends more assistant principals in middle and high schools, as well as career advisors in the middle schools

Todd Bowden. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Schools

Anticipating that the Sarasota County School District will not see increased funding from the state for the next year, School Board members were divided this week about endorsing the full complement of new employees — at a cost of about $5.7 million — that incoming Superintendent Todd Bowden has proposed.

Among the additional staff would be five assistant principals at the middle school level, so each of those schools would have two assistants; five at the high school level; and the replacement of five administrative interns at the elementary schools with assistant principals.

During the School Board’s Feb. 21 work session, Bowden also explained his desire to place a career advisor at each middle school and a home/school liaison at each Title 1 Elementary School.

He called some of staff’s 2017-18 budget projections “extremely conservative,” including an estimate of only a 6% increase in revenue next year from the 1-mill voter-approved tax. In spite of some board members’ concerns, Bowden said, “I believe you can do this $5.7-milliion package without deficit spending.”

“But that is assuming that everything goes right, and we don’t have a crystal ball to know that that would actually happen,” Chair Caroline Zucker responded.

Based on the information he had from the state — as well as district projections — Deputy Chief Financial Officer Al Weidner’s draft budget showed the board ending the 2017-18 year with an unassigned fund balance of 9.31%; the district policy calls for a minimum of 7.5%. However, his budget did not include any potential salary increases.

“As a board, you have always been very conservative,” Weidner said, “and that’s one reason why you are in the excellent condition you are in.”

Eric Robinson. Image from his campaign website

Expressing a different view from Zucker, board member Eric Robinson — who was sworn in in late November — told his colleagues he felt it was incumbent upon them to support the new superintendent they had hired. He was willing to do so, Robinson added, “as long as it moves the needle. We’re [four-tenths of a point from being a B [district]. We need to do something.”

The Sarasota County Schools were one of only three in the state to earn an A rating for the 2015-16 school year.

However, Robinson said, if the board approved the new personnel and the district’s rating did not improve, that would set the stage for a different conversation ahead of the 2018-19 budget year.

Bowden and the board will hold another discussion on the draft 2017-18 budget on March 21. Afterward, Bowden said, he would like to be able to release it to principals and department chiefs, so they can hire any additional personnel that has been approved.

Pros and cons

“I believe it’s my fiduciary responsibility to make sure that we don’t go over budget,” Zucker told Bowden as the Feb. 21 discussion continued. She especially was concerned about his proposal to hire the new assistant principals. Members of the public will complain, she added, that the board is “staffing on a higher level again.”

“Ideally, we don’t want to go into deficit spending,” board member Bridget Ziegler pointed out, “but we want to move the needle forward, as Eric said.” The new assistant principals, for example, she indicated, will have a positive impact on student achievement. “I’m in support of putting more of our resources and focus to the school level.”

School Board member Jane Goodwin. File photo

Bowden told the board, “This is a proposal that I am putting forth on behalf of our principals.” He had spent six weeks talking with them individually and in a group setting to gain their ideas about how best to boost student achievement, he added.

“I am supporting this with caution,” board member Jane Goodwin said, noting that when she visits the district high schools, she sees how busy the principals and assistant principals are. They have very little time to talk with anyone, she continued, and parents complain that it can take several days to get a call back when they leave messages.
“If this will help and we can find the money to do this … then I say … I will support this solidly,” Goodwin told her colleagues. She agreed with Robinson about wanting to show support for Bowden, she pointed out. Moreover, Goodwin said, “We haven’t been moving the needle lately.” If the district dropped to a B, she added, “[that] would be horrendous.”

Bowden also pointed out that the draft 2017-18 budget the School Board reviewed with Weidner contained about 90 new positions — both instructional and classified — that were made necessary by formulas the district uses to calculate staff on the basis of student growth. When adding in the extra positions he has proposed, he continued, “the great majority of the changes take place at the instructional and classified level.”

In discussing Bowden’s staffing recommendations, Brown said, “I am very, very concerned, from what I am hearing, about no new resources” of funding for the next school year. The only segment of his proposal she would support at this time, she continued, was the $300,000 for an assistant superintendent for instruction.

Retiring Superintendent Lori White held that post prior to her becoming the appointed chief of the district in May 2008, and it has remained vacant since then.

Bowden noted that that position was in the budget draft Weidner had presented. He wanted to defer to the person who hired to determine the support staff the person will need, Bowden added, so “that is just a space holder in the budget …” He did not want to request more money after that new assistant superintendent came on board, he said.

Middle school career advisors

The Suncoast Technical College campus in Sarasota is on Beneva Road. Todd Bowden was director of career, technical and adult education for the district prior to being named the new superintendent. File photo

Bowden also took the opportunity during the work session to explain his request for $375,272 to place a career advisor at each middle school.

The objective, Bowden said, is to put “hundreds of different opportunities in front of [those middle school students]. I don’t think anyone expects that a 13-year-old can tell you in clear and concise terms what it is they want to be when they grow up.” However, he continued, the goal is to enable “each eighth-grader [to] leave with an educational career plan,” which would guide the courses he or she would take in high school.

Bowden continued, “That plan would be a living, breathing document”; it would evolve as the student changed his or her mind about a career path. “Our promise would be that they graduate college career-ready, with an actionable plan … that started in the middle school years.”

School Board member Shirley Brown. File photo

When board member Brown asked why Bowden had proposed career advisors instead of more guidance counselors, Bowden replied, “Different qualification set.” “Career advisor” would be a classified position, not an instructional position, he continued. That would enable the district to employ people without the traditional background in education, he added. While people with at least a bachelor’s degree would be preferred, those with associate’s degrees would be acceptable as well, he noted.

After having talked with Bowden about the proposal earlier, Brown said, “I could see why it makes some sense. … We lose a lot of kids between eighth grade and high school. They have this thought, ‘Why bother?’” An educational career plan has the potential to encourage them to stay in school, she added.

Still, given the budget presentation Weidner had provided earlier, Brown continued, “I think [the proposal] is very tenuous at this point. I’m very, very cautious about the whole plan.”