BRADENTON -- As Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials trumpet an all-time high in state education spending -- raising per-pupil funding $207 from last year to $7,097 per student -- the Manatee County School District warned its department heads not to ask for more money.
"We said: 'When you bring forth your requested budget this year, it better be flat,'" Chief Financial Officer Rebecca Roberts told the Manatee County School Board on Tuesday. "Any changes that you'd like to make need to be flat with last year's budget."
Even that's not enough.
Roberts and her financial team are asking department heads to trim expenses to help close a $1.8 million gap standing in the way of bringing a balanced budget proposal to the board in July.
Although $1.8 million is a relatively small number compared with the overall district budget, it also means new programs or initiatives -- beyond state mandates -- are unlikely to come out of general district funds.
The juxtaposition between state praise for the budget and the continuing district struggle to make ends meet highlights an issue school board members and district officials say is a fundamental fault in the system: The state fails to fund education at the level needed or even at historic levels.
Compounding the funding shortfall is the district history of financial mismanagement. The district is still struggling to make up lost fiscal ground, school officials said.
"There's a noticeable disparity in how the state has allocated funds to address student population," board Chairman Bob Gause. "The
districts continue to have to provide and serve."
Of the $78.2 billion budget Scott approved Tuesday, $19.7 billion is going toward K-12 education.
"We want every family in our state to succeed and that is why we are committed to investing in our children's and grandchildren's education," Scott wrote in a letter after he signed the budget.
The state factors in local property values, which went up a whopping 9 percent in Manatee County this year, to reach its historic per-pupil spending.
"They preach a good game up there," Roberts said. "The increase is local effort. It's not the state funding."
The district expects to serve more students this year. District discretionary funding, which is not tied to specific programs, comes in at $1.2 million, Roberts said.
The district estimates the cost to bring in 49 more teachers to meet the class-size amendment at $3.4 million.
"The Legislature is not funding all the teachers we need for the student growth we're experiencing," Roberts said.
That calculation is based on a starting salary figure multiplied by 36.5 percent, which takes into account benefits and other costs.
With the state budget finalized, Manatee County School District budget director Heather Jenkins and her team are working to develop a proposed balanced budget by July 28.
"We should be able to find that," Jenkins said.
Jenkins and her team closely tracked state progress, making adjustments as new proposals came out. Most of the estimated total of $13 million in additional state funding this year is already tied to certain programs. The final number came out to $12.2 million, so only a few adjustments are left.
The total local funding will increase this year to $168,434,032, an almost $11 million jump. That's largely because of continued growth in the county, Roberts said. Increasing property values and new property values are bringing in more money and adding enrollment, she said.
Jenkins said she will continue to analyze revenue sources, calculate funding left over from the 2014-15 year and look for budget cuts.
"There are many pieces we have to look at to see if they are completely accurate," Jenkins said.
Roberts and Jenkins called the 2015-16 budget solid, but officials still have to be wary of previous fiscal mismanagement, most noticeably in the fund balance.
State law requires the district to keep 3 percent of anticipated revenue in the unrestricted fund balance for "catastrophic" events, Roberts said.
Manatee County had 3 percent in reserves for the first time in five years with the 2014-15 budget.
The new 2015-16 budget will also have the state-required reserve cushion, Roberts said, but the district needs more money in reserve to regain a credit rating strong enough to take advantage of lower interest rates to borrow money for school construction.
"We're looking probably at 4.5 percent," she said.
It's not a hard number, she said, but credit agencies feel more comfortable with that type of percentage for school districts, she said. The district won't reach 4.5 percent this year, she said, but it'll have more in its fund balance this year than last year.
"They're also looking to see continuous growth there," she said. "That's positive for us."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.