When the Florida Legislature passed its 2013-14 budget in May, lawmakers touted a $1 billion increase in education spending as one of their major accomplishments. “Lawmakers boost education spending,” declared a Miami Herald headline. “Florida budget adds to school spending,” trumpeted The New York Times.
What the legislators didn’t highlight in their post-session chest-thumping was that much of the increased funding didn’t come from state revenues, such as sales or corporate taxes or the lottery, but from increases in the so-called “required local effort” millage rate local school districts must levy on property owners in their counties.
In Polk County, the increase will be 5 cents per $1,000 of taxable value. That means the owner of a house with a $100,000 taxable value — for a total increase of $2.50.
It’s not that the legislators didn’t know they passed a tax increase. Senate President Dan Gaetz spent his pre-legislative career railing again Tallahassee meddling. “As a school board member and superintendent, I was frustrated that the Legislature often off-loaded mandatory increases onto local school districts,” Gaetz said in a statement last month, as the impact of the appropriations bill on local school district taxes bubbled to the surface.
We agree with the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott that education cuts made two years ago — on top of budgetary strains stemming from the Great Recession — had to be reversed.
That was especially true while the state was implementing more rigorous standardized testing even as districts were forced to reassign or layoff personnel who would have been tasked with professional development (teaching teachers how to teach to the new tests).
But the Legislature has been playing shell games with the state education budget for so long — draining reserves, cutting business taxes, raiding trust funds and allocating lottery money and capital millage rates to operational purposes — the only way it could find money to pay for the $1 billion increase was to dip into property owners’ pockets. After all, they’ve learned over the years that voters don’t keep tabs on such things much less hold their elected officials accountable.
Local school board members won’t be so fortunate. They are the ones who have to face constituents at budget hearings and explain to them the intricacies of education budgeting, with its FEFPs, FTEs, RLEs, PECOs and more mind-numbing acronyms that refer to even more mind-numbing funding formulas.
Local tax revenue funds about 67 percent of school budgets. Of that about 69 percent is from the Legislature’s required local effort. That’s despite the fact the state constitution bars the Legislature from levying property taxes. Not that they’re worried. Nobody is paying attention, much less asking, “Who’s getting tax cuts, because it’s not me?”