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Superintendent: School Funding Faces Possible Crisis

  As the 2016-17 school year approaches in Florida, two school districts in the western Panhandle are preparing some belt-tightening measures.

Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas calls the 2016-17 term a “status quo year,” including a on percent categorical increase from the state. Close tabs are being kept on the $350 million general operating budget.

“I am concerned about the ’17-18 school year because of some of the medical expenditures [Medicaid] Florida’s going to have to make,” Thomas said. “I believe that’s going to impact all other areas of the state budget.”

Thomas’ biggest concern involves the federal Low Income Pool, or LIP Program.

“Florida has not reached an agreement that’s to our advantage with the federal government,” said Thomas. “Now those costs are going to be on the back of Floridians, and we’re going to have to manage that. And there’s not going to be enough money.”

The Okaloosa County District’s financial staff is working on their budget, with no set numbers available at this time. The proposal will be advertised on July 20, with a public hearing scheduled for July 25.

In Santa Rosa County, Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick isn’t mincing words. He calls the potential effects of budget shortfalls a “pending financial crisis.”

“Any time we look at services in education, and we start having to talk about revisiting some of the draconian measures of the recession, it’s scary,” Wyrosdick said. “I think this needs to be a priority.”    

School districts are urged by the state Board of Education to keep their financial condition ratios, used by a school district to monitor and assess finances and practices, above three percent. Fall below that, and the superintendent has to come up with a way to bring it back up. If a district sitting at a two to three percent ratio doesn’t turn it around within a certain time frame, the DOE comes in and does it for them. Wyrosdick speaks from experience.

“A few years ago we got below that three percent and enacted a financial recovery plan,” Wyrosdick said. “Five years later we’re back to [an estimated] six percent fund balance. It removes dollars that you would use to educate and to expand programs.”

Meanwhile, Escambia County District officials did not have an exact ratio number, other than to say it’s in the double digits for a seventh straight year.

Student enrollment could be the basis for another funding headache. No money is given for enrollments after the budget is set, but Superintendent Malcolm Thomas says that’s always been the case.

“People are coming to Florida and bringing students with them,” Thomas said. “If it ends up that you have more students in Florida than was projected, they don’t change the money. They just divide the dollars by a larger number of students, which means the per-student calculation would be less.”

According to a study by the National Law Center, Florida ranks forty second among states in per-student funding, at just over $7,100. The national average is almost $9,800 dollars per student.