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Ron DeSantis says Florida public schools are wasting money. Are they?

Florida’s school leaders have made plain for years their desire for more money to run their districts.

They’ve asked lawmakers for higher per-student funding, and the freedom to spend the money where it’s needed. They’ve requested more construction money, and pushed to keep property tax rates the same so schools can reap the benefit of rising values.

Not so fast, says Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate for governor.

He suggests the system has plenty of money in it already — unlike Democrat Andrew Gillum, who has backed a corporate tax rate hike to bolster education spending by $1 billion.

It just needs to be spent more wisely, DeSantis suggested, calling for reductions in "bureaucratic waste and administrative inefficiency."

His target: To direct 80 percent of all state education funding "into the classroom." It’s his slightly edited approach to the "65 percent solution" that several states including Florida explored but abandoned more than a decade ago.

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The details are where the talking point gets dicey. The DeSantis campaign doesn’t define what it means by "into the classroom." Its examples of waste and inefficiency include about $125,000 of administrative raises in Broward County that the local school board has already questioned.

A DeSantis spokesman said the proposal remains a work in progress, and would include consultations with teachers, parents and lawmakers.

"The list will be comprised of things that any Floridian can look at and say yes, those are things that are going into the classroom to help our children learn," spokesman Stephen Lawson explained.

State records reflect that school administrative expenses have increased over the past five years. On average, districts spent 16 percent more per student on administration in 2016-17 than five years earlier, essentially keeping pace with inflation.

Still, observed Florida TaxWatch CEO Dominic Calabro, "There is a lot of money in education that is not spent in the classroom. I’m not saying it’s a waste. But it’s a lot of money."

It goes toward such functions as information technology, student transportation, building security and maintenance, and other operational needs. And, as with any large business, inefficiencies can exist.

The issue, Calabro argued, is that school districts don’t always attempt to streamline those costs. Doing so could save millions of dollars, he suggested, which would be used to improve student learning.

It takes regular attention to the details, he said, with constant research for improvement.

School district leaders counter that they have, in fact, worked to control spending with annual budget reviews department by department.

Hillsborough County’s administrative team noted, for example, that it eliminated nearly 2,000 jobs, including more than 50 district-level directors, over three years.

Yet that type of effort can go only so far, the officials suggest.

Pasco County School Board members kept running into roadblocks this past summer as they discussed reallocating money for raises, as nearly every item on the potential list carried requirements or downsides, such as a potential credit rating decrease.

They question whether waste is the problem, or if they haven’t been funded well enough to do everything they’re expected to do — and that runs well beyond education.

Officials in many districts argue that, depending on the definition of "into the classroom," they’re already approaching that 80 percent mark DeSantis seeks. A huge portion of it comes in the salaries and benefits they pay to people who work with students, although not all of them directly.

Trying to get much higher, they suggested, could be difficult — particularly if the state continues to mandate how they use much of their money.

"If you think about it, we really haven’t had a big increase. And all of the increases we have received are most of our categoricals," said Olga Swinson, the chief financial officer for Pasco schools, referring to state money such as lottery funds that are earmarked for certain expenses.

Swinson, who also chairs the Florida School Finance Council, noted that lawmakers this year directed millions of dollars in new funding toward security and mental health services — neither of which might be considered "classroom" expenses — while increasing the rest of the operating budget by just 47 cents per student.

"I don’t know how you restrict us to 80 percent of the money having to be instructional when we have little control of the money that comes to us," she said.

Meanwhile, the Finance Council she heads, which advises education commissioner Pam Stewart, observed in a recent white paper that Florida’s education funding has not kept up with rising costs.

"Average funding would need to be increased an additional $1,120, or 15 percent, to $8,528 per student to offset the estimated impact of inflation as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics," wrote council members Michael Burke of Palm Beach schools and Ron Steiger of Miami-Dade schools.

Complicating matters, the state has forced districts — which in many counties are the largest employers — to reduce their tax rates an average of 18 percent over three years, they noted, while municipalities and local governments did not face the same reductions.

All along, student population grew, and districts added new schools to serve them.

Read the Finance Council white paper

Even if they were to cut back their administrative ranks, Swinson said, the work would remain, whether disciplining students or paying the bills.

"It’s not like the (state) says, ‘You cut 1 percent and you don’t have to do all these things,’" Swinson said. "What it does is just increase my overtime budget."

Calabro likened Florida’s education spending to storing money in a mattress.

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"I don’t know if there is enough money in the entire mattress," he said. "I do know it is a very lumpy mattress, with too much in some areas and not enough in others."

With that, he neatly summarized the nuances of a situation that politicians in both parties have attempted to address in different ways. Education funding in Florida is as much about who decides how money is spent as it is about whether there’s enough to go around.

Calabro suggested some guidelines and best practices could help find savings. The key, he said, is to try to reduce and control costs over time, without putting more demands on schools that stress the system.

"You can put the blame everywhere," he said. "The question is, what are you going to do about it?"

DeSantis has called for audits of the money being spent and suggested cutting waste is better than raising taxes. The state auditor already reviews districts regularly, but not annually.

Said Lawson, the campaign spokesman: "The best way to find out how government can more efficiently use the taxpayers’ money is by reviewing how it is currently spent."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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