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Monday, Sep 22, 2014

State stiffs schools, Pinellas officials say

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Budget meetings won’t kick into high gear until next month, but Pinellas County school officials already know the few increases coming from the state are a “shell game,” said Superintendent Michael Grego.

“This was not a banner year for public schools to get money. It simply wasn’t and there’s no way to defend that it was,” said Steve Swartzle, the school district’s consulting lobbyist with Florida School Services. “We got an increase in some dollars, but most of those increases are earmarked for whatever they have to fund, not to use for local priorities.”

Pinellas will see an increase of 3.44 percent, or $23.6 million in its operating budget next year, bringing the total to $685.6 million. However, much of the increase is earmarked for projects such as adding technological infrastructure to classrooms, improving school safety and extra hours of reading instruction at struggling schools.

This year, the Legislature mandated that districts provide an extra hour of reading instruction each day at the state’s 300 lowest performing elementary schools, while last year they were only required to do so for the lowest 100.

Although Pinellas officials aren’t sure how many schools will fall on that list, last year seven were in the bottom 100. What they do know is the Legislature hasn’t provided more money to hire reading coaches, pay teachers to stay an extra hour or cover additional costs to keep more schools open the extra hour.

“This was a surprise,” Swartzle said. “The people involved understood that the mandate would cost money and we’re doing a lot of things on our own anyway. That was a disappointment, and a mandate that needs to be addressed.”

The Legislature also left off salary increases, mainly for teachers. The state appropriated about $480 million for the salary increases last year and, while money was allocated this year to maintain those increases, no funding was provided for additional salary increases.

Most of the budget increases are coming from local revenue sources, such as Pinellas’ property taxes and higher tax collections based on increasing property values, instead of the state, Swartzle said.

Though many thought “safe schools” funding would become a legislative priority this year as schools invested heavily in security following the Sandy Hook attack, it will remain the same at a little more than $3 million.

While the school district will get $1 million for digital classrooms, that won’t meet the entire cost to provide equipment for every student to complete assignments on computers or iPads, as they will be expected to do under state requirements.

While about $50 million in capital improvement funds have been allocated to public schools for the first time in years, once it is split among all school districts it might be enough to replace a roof at a high school, Swartzle said. “When we subtract everything out, there will be very little new money for what you want to do,” Swartzle said.

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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