The Monroe County School District has emerged from the latest legislative session in Tallahassee with increased funding -- but most of it is already earmarked for specific projects.
As the session came to an end Friday, Capitol-watchers such as School Board Chairman Andy Griffiths were left to ponder what it will end up yielding to Monroe County.
"It's actually too early to tell how we'll end up faring from all this," said Griffiths, who drove up to Tallahassee in late April to lobby representatives and take part in Florida Keys Day. "Until we get a chance to read the bills, it's tough to say how we're going to be impacted. We may not know the full story for another six weeks or so."
At first glance, however, he was cautiously optimistic on two fronts.
"The big news coming out of the Legislature this year is a rise of over $1 billion for education," Griffiths said. "The bad news is that most of that money is encumbered due to mandates passed by the Legislature."
For instance, he said, there will be a higher contribution required from the district for the Florida Retirement System, for all district employees, of about $300 million statewide.
"That's about a third of your money right there," Griffiths said. "The local boards, which have self-insured health plans, also need to look at their health, and [workers' compensation] funds, which have been underfunded for the past five years."
Also, he said, the state's portion of the Local Required Effort (LRE), the millage rate the state sets for school boards, is going up 7.2 percent, as county property values have risen by $1 billion this year.
This means the state is going to contribute about $4.53 million in total Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) money for the 2013-14 school year, about $250,000 more than last year.
However, Griffiths pointed out: "It's not like the state is giving us significantly more money. The state is actually forcing us to raise more money, as any increase requires Monroe residents to pay 90 percent of the cost of education.
"On the local board portion, 0.748 is the local board's discretionary millage. If the School Board decides to leave millage at the maximum -- like 65 out of out 67 districts in the state are already doing -- we will realize more revenue due to the value of property rising."
Another piece of good news is the Teacher Salary Allocation, which should provide district employees with a shot in the arm in 2013-14. However, the Florida Department of Education needs to accept the Monroe County School District's teacher evaluation plan before the cash will flow.
"We're very far along with our own teacher evaluation model, which is due in 2014 by law," Griffiths said. "But we're not going to receive the money until the DOE approves it. Merit pay will be the law of the land in 2014."
He said the money comes with strings attached.
"This is not just free money," Griffiths said. "It has to be bargained with the union. The argument will be how much, if any, should the non-teachers get? How much should the effective teachers get? What about the highly effective teachers? And will it be a bonus or a part of their salaries? There are a lot of questions ahead on that issue."
Ruth Melton, the Tallahassee-based director of Legislative Relations for the Florida School Board Association, sees the situation much the same as Griffiths.
"There is a little more money this year," she said. "But before you start getting excited, almost half of that $1 billion is going to salaries, which means we still need to figure out how to keep the lights on, and keeping paper towels in the bathrooms, etc."
About $300 million more represents employer contributions to workers' compensation and retirement.
"Employees' contribution will still be 3 percent, but the employer share is going up, for a couple of reasons, from about 5 percent to about 7 percent, maybe even higher," Melton said. "The Legislature has come up with a different formula for calculating Full Time Equivalent (FTE) funds to take into account students enrolled in the Florida Virtual School classes. Every high school student in Florida has to take an online/virtual course."
In a nutshell, Melton said, "You're earning money, but most of that money is already earmarked for things like salary increases, contributions to the Florida Retirement System, and from adjustments to the calculations of full-time equivalent students. The point is that there's a significant increase in funds from the state, for which we are grateful. But the district is left with minimal flexibility, even with the increase. What appears to be a lot on paper will not translate into as significant an increase as it might appear to be, but only because it's being used for specific purposes."
On the bright side, two bills that would have effectively "deregulated" the Florida High School Athletics Association died when the session ended Friday afternoon.
Both Senate Bill 1164 and House Bill 1279 were opposed by Keys residents such as Marathon Middle High School Athletic Director Teresa Konrath, and her daughter, athlete Taylor Konrath, who complained that the measures would have put the "integrity and character of students at risk" by making it easier for them to, among other things, transfer to other schools midway through the year, and allowing larger schools to build up "powerhouse" sports programs that could have stripped assets from other schools.
Konrath traveled to Tallahassee with Taylor, a senior at Marathon High who excels at softball, volleyball and soccer, to lobby against the bills.
"I didn't agree with [the bills] purely because they wouldn't have encouraged kids to uphold their commitments to the school and their fellow athletes," said Taylor Konrath, also the Heisman Trophy winner for Florida. "That attitude teaches kids that if they don't like something about the school, then they just move on to the next one. Essentially when it comes to the sporting aspect, there's going to be super powerhouses, and lesser teams. Normally it's pretty even across the board, but this would have eliminated that."