School Board members learn that state is not expected to increase its student funding allocation for 2017-18

Debate ensues about how best to use a $6 million surplus in the 2015-16 district budget

Al Weidner addresses the School Board during a meeting. File photo

It was a $6-million question, and new Sarasota School Board member Eric Robinson voiced frustration with news that indicated spending the money needed more debate.

During a Jan. 17 School Board workshop presentation, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Al Weidner announced that, based on the latest information he had received from the Florida Department of Education (DOE) and from other Tallahassee sources, the extra state money he had anticipated for kindergarten through grade 12 students would not be forthcoming for the 2017-18 district budget.

Beforehand, he noted, he had expected school districts would receive a 2% boost in state funding per student, “and I thought that was conservative.”

The latest information he had heard, he continued, made it clear that the state will need to allocate more money to Medicaid, and legislative leaders are discussing higher spending for higher education.

As a result, Weidner’s preliminary 2017-18 budget showed the district ending up $403,757 in the black.

Robinson asked about the status of $6 million that he had been told earlier would be available for new employees in the next school year, such as social workers and nurses.

Superintendent Lori White reminded Robinson that the board has scheduled a special workshop on the budget from 5 to 7 p.m. on Jan. 25. The $6 million will be one part of that discussion, she added. In March, she continued, the board will finalize positions for the 2017-18 school year. “You get the school and department budgets at the March workshop.”

Robinson then asked about building into the next budget a raise for teachers and staff.

In years past, White explained, the School Board did include raises in its preliminary budgets. The board later decided to leave out any potential salary increases, she added. “We are a transparent institution,” she pointed out, so the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association knows about the board’s budget constraints when collective bargaining gets underway.

Superintendent Lori White. File photo

Legislative mandates about certain types of raises for teachers have been another reason the board decided to stop including any potential salary adjustments in the preliminary budgets, Weidner pointed out. “There’s been a lot of changes. … I think you’re best not to put any type of salary increase in the budget right now. … You may be faced with just doing a bonus, which is non-recurring.”

“I’d rather make sure we get teachers,” Robinson replied.

“I see both sides,” board member Bridget Ziegler said. “From a negotiating tactic, [the budget information is] all out there anyway.”

She is concerned, Ziegler added, that the board might include a raise in the preliminary budget, “and something catastrophic happens, and we don’t have that money …”

“I would caution us not to [put raises] in the budget this year because we really have no idea of what our funding will be,” Chair Caroline Zucker pointed out.

Todd Bowden, who will take over as superintendent after White retires on Feb. 18, then asked the board members for specific guidance on the issue. (Bowden previously was executive director of career, technical and adult education for the district.)

Chief Financial Officer Mitsi Corcoran explained that the $6 million remained in the unassigned funds portion of the board’s 2015-16 budget. “There’s $14 million of excess revenues over expenditures.” Of that amount, she continued, $8 million went to pay raises the board approved earlier this month for teachers and staff. It also appears that the final figures in the 2016-17 budget will be better than anticipated, she told the board.

Bowden pointed out, however, that — based on Weidner’s preliminary figures — if the board assigned the $6 million to positions or salary adjustments, the 2017-18 budget would be in the red. He said he wanted “to make sure what you’re comfortable with.”

He was under the impression earlier, Robinson told his colleagues, that the district would be able to hire new personnel with the $6 million.

A chart shows trends in the School Board’s unassigned fund balance over the past 10 years. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

Zucker responded that the board and staff originally thought they would have more money for 2017-18, prior to Weidner’s receipt of the latest information from Tallahassee.

“It’s a one-time $6 million,” board member Shirley Brown explained to Robinson. “When funding from the state is flat, if we want to put anything else in [the budget], there’s no recurring dollars.”

The Department of Education (DOE) in recent years also has informed districts of “holdbacks,” Weidner pointed out. That means DOE gives less money to the districts than the districts had expected. Enrollment changes tied to state projections have been one factor cited for those actions, he added. “You never know what the state giveth or taketh.”

If “[state] sales tax collections tank,” Weidner continued, “all of a sudden … you’re having an unplanned revenue reduction from the state sources.”

Bowden asked once more for guidance regarding the $6 million.

A graphic compares major employee benefits for the school district over the past decade. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

“I don’t want to get into the tangle of going into reserves again — or, let’s say, deep into the reserves,” Brown responded. “We normally end up with better numbers than what we had projected, because things get rosier. … I believe that our property values are going to increase.”

Weidner told the board, “It wouldn’t surprise me [if the 2017 School Board property value goes up] around 9 or 10%,” though he had included a 6% rise in the preliminary budget. Last year, he pointed out, the increase was about 9%.

Ziegler said she felt the board should stay on a conservative path, as well, though she agreed with Robinson that certain positions need to be filled. Ziegler also said she felt that the board needed to set clear goals for any new allocation of resources, so it could measure the results of the spending.

Eric Robinson. Image from his campaign website

“I’m still a little taken aback about the $6 million,” Robinson said. “As a whole, I would say I’m not a big deficit-spending kind of guy.” Still, he said, he was interested in seeing the board invest more money in closing the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students, as well as hiring more staff to address emotional wellness issues among students.

He did remain firm in wanting the board to include funding for a raise in the 2017-18 budget.

“I would like to see what kinds of best-case and worst-case ideas you can come up with,” board member Jane Goodwin told Weidner. She, too, preferred to take a conservative stance with the budget, she added, but she agreed with Robinson about the necessity of certain investments, such as “taking care of the achievement gap, which we really have to do a lot of work on, I think. … I would like to see some positions filled that are very necessary positions.”

New positions and health insurance

Among other facets of his Jan. 17 presentation, Weidner noted that he had allocated funding in the 2017-18 budget for 82 new positions, 31 of which would be linked to increased enrollment.

His projection, he said, calls for about 500 more students in the regular schools during the next school year.

Weidner added that 29 new custodians are needed among the extra staff, and 20 employees will be hired to work at the new Suncoast Technical College in North Port, which is set to open during the 2017-18 school year.

Further, Weidner included a 12% rise in group health insurance costs for the 2017-18 budget.

Brown told him that it had been her understanding that health benefits expenses would be going down after the School Board authorized a self-insurance program that went into effect in January 2016.

His figures in the preliminary 2017-18 budget are based on the district’s claims history, Weidner replied.

“We are covering more people: more hires, more money we pay,” Corcoran explained.

Furthermore, the group health insurance expense for the district is expected to go up in January 2018, Weidner added.