Monroe County School Board Chairman Andy Griffiths is a man with a mission: He wants to convince the Florida Legislature to repeal the Wealth Adjustment funding calculation he says costs area students nearly $3 million annually.
At a meeting Monday night at Plantation Key School, Griffiths made his case before members of the school's PTA and its School Advisory Committee.
"The Wealth Adjustment is a dinosaur," Griffiths said. "It's antiquated. It needs to go, now."
Basically, the Wealth Adjustment is a modification of the calculations the state uses to determine the amount of money it provides to each student in the district.
Many smaller, poorer districts benefit from "Sparsity," another calculation that grants additional money to districts with low population density, and a sparse population. Monroe County meets the sparsity criteria, and should qualify for those funds, but because of the high value of real estate here, the Wealth Adjustment becomes a penalty, and in essence wipes out the Sparsity allocation the district would otherwise receive. The total cost to county taxpayers to fund Sparsity, is $2.7 million, since Monroe County raises 90 percent of its school taxes locally. This is done through the Local Required Effort (LRE), property tax millage, which is set by the state.
For the first time in a number of years, Griffiths sees a real possibility that this "antiquated" adjustment can be done away with.
"We've lost the Cost of Living Adjustment," Griffiths said. "Twenty years ago, it was eight percent. Today, it's at two percent. This wealth 'penalty' amounts to 4.8 percent of our operating budget. To put it another way, it's two times the value of the furlough days that the board and union are currently at an impasse over."
The impasse is a disagreement on the amount of the fund balance the school district currently maintains, according to Griffiths.
"The union is using the encumbered fund balance as the basis for its bargaining position," he said. "The board maintains that only five percent of its funds, or what's called the unencumbered fund balance, is available to be negotiated over."
Griffiths has been working to get rid of the Wealth Adjustment since the late 1990s, but for political reasons, that magic alignment of politicians in Tallahassee, with county representatives, has never been quite as favorable as it is today, according to Griffiths.
"It's probably going to take a Republican to do this, because they are the majority party," Griffiths said. "They used to stand for local control, and self-determination. Hopefully [Florida Keys State Rep.] Holly Raschein can remind them of their roots, and get this adjustment eliminated."
One reason Griffiths thinks removal of the Wealth Adjustment should be an easier sell, is that it could be revenue neutral to the state.
"Because we are a county that must raise 90 percent of its school budget through the LRE, we expect a 10 percent match from the state, for money raised," Griffiths said. "If we hold the state harmless for those matching funds, there is no cost to the state, to eliminate the Wealth Adjustment."
Should Griffiths' proposal ever come to pass, he said, the average home in the Keys would see a .14 mil increase in its state school tax, or about a $50 to $60 .
During the recent Strategic Planning sessions, convened by Superintendent of Schools Mark Porter, Griffiths made his pitch to the parents and teachers in attendance, who also see the need to raise additional revenues for the district.
"Here's a way to raise $2.7 million without a vote of the school board, or the county," Griffiths said. "Holly ran on a pro-education platform, so now we're asking her to support us in these difficult times."
Reached for comment on Friday afternoon, Raschein's Legislative Aide, Erin Muir, said that while her boss is receptive to any idea that might bring more money to county education, the timing might not be right to make it happen this year.
"It's definitely an issue our office is looking into," Muir said. "It was presented to us rather late in the session, so the likelihood of anything happening on it this year isn't good. There are tax implications, so it's something that needs to be fully vetted. We need to have numbers that will show exactly how much everyone's taxes are going to go up if Mr. Griffiths is successful in pitching his proposal."