While Florida increased spending on education by $780 million for the upcoming school year, this is not largesse on the state's part. The lion's share of that amount -- $494 million -- will come from the boon in property taxes paid on the local level.
Rising property valuations and new construction account for the revenue growth, though the higher tax bills for exisiting homes and businesses are not being greetly warmly, to put it mildly. The 8.1 percent valuation increase, as certified by the Manatee County Property Appriaser's Office a few days ago, will by painful on many pocketbooks.
The record amount of per pupil spending jumps $207 to a total of $7,097 but that doesn't solve the budget pressures on administrators, educators and school boards around the state.
The governor and Legislature can boast all they want about the higher level of spending on public education (it's only a 3 percent increase), but the fact is K-12 classrooms are still being shortchanged.
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The Manatee County school district's chief financial officer, Rebecca Roberts, described the situation succintly to the school board: "They preach a good game up there (in Tallahassee). The increase is local effort. It's not state funding."
Manatee's district continues to struggle with rising costs due to a surging student population, the cost of hiring more teachers to comply with the class-size amendment and past years of financial and administrative mismanagement. Manatee's meager increase in state funding comes to around $12.2 million, almost all swallowed up by mandated programs.
The district's financial team recently sounded the alarm about a $1.8 million gap in balancing the budget, something they plan to fix in order to hand the school board a clean spending plan by the end of July. Expenses must be reduced yet again, but at least not in margins the district cut in the past few years. But the district's fiscal recovery has been startling, wiping out deficits and finally achieving the state's 3 percent reserve mandate with this year's $627.5 million budget, the first time in five years that fund cushion had been set aside.
Manatee County administrators and board members are looking at asking voters to improve local education funding by approving an increase in the property tax millage as well as extending the half-cent sales tax levy beyond its 2017 expiration date.
Sarasota County's schools already enjoy a significant funding advantage over Manatee, with voters there appproving a 1-mill tax referendum every four years since 2002. While Manatee gets the majority of its funding from the state, Sarasota gets far more from local taxpayers and can better afford investments in student education and achievement.
Manatee's financial staff estimated that operating requirements will exceed revenues by some $62 million annually over the next four years. A 1-mill property tax increase will solve that budget imbalance.
The growing student population -- expected to be almost 1,500 this year alone -- will require capital improvements soon, including the construction of three new schools in the county's high growth areas.
While money is not the sole solution to improving student achievement, it's difficult to ignore facts. Sarasota County invests more in education, and student test scores surpass Manatee results by large percentages. In the recently released scores based on the new Florida State Standards curriculum, 51 percent of Manatee's 10th-grade students passed the new English language arts test compared with 66 percent in Sarasota and 54 percent statewide.
The key question is do our students and teachers lack the resources to best compete on achievement and is the district's statewide ranking languishing in the bottom half because of that? Voters will likely have the opportunity to weigh in on that question next year.