Last Thursday, the Franklin County School Board held a tense board meeting, even by Franklin County standards. A governmental agency that spends about $15 million a year announced that they would not be able to make payroll in April after they run out of money if spending continues at the current pace. It was no one bolt out of the blue that is responsible for the creation of this emergency.
In fact, the excuse of basing the current budget on a terribly inflated projection of the number of students to attend the consolidated school is only just one more issue steadily eroding the district’s finances. And, to make matters worse, Concerned Citizens of Franklin County (CCFC) shared its concerns with school authorities last July on this very issue. Thursday, the school finance officer stated the district is $750,000 in the hole.
This is not about Concerned Citizens, it’s not about fixing blame, and it’s not about the anguish this has caused school employees and parents, although these are all true and must be addressed. There’s a bigger story here, it’s about the flight of students out of our school system. It’s about the current students who are losing educational opportunities like foreign language classes required to get into college. It is about what happens when management loses control and patches over problems by trying to satisfy everyone, instead of doing the hard things that are required to educate our children.
Figures stated at the board meeting put the current student head count at the consolidated K-12 school somewhere between 750 and 800, out of a countywide total of 1,148, which includes the Apalachicola Bay Charter School and Franklin Academy. That number has been steadily going down since the new school was built, as more families either move away or simply take their children out of school. During that time the head count of teachers and support personnel has remained relatively static. The only conclusion we can come to is that the embedded cost of a large physical plant and the many employees that staff it are colliding with a declining student enrollment that is not forecasted to improve. Wonderful teachers and support personnel still need butts in seats. We are missing a great many of those!
The next issue is accountability and competency. Outraged individuals made their point well at the meeting while at the same time missing the obvious issue; 80 percent of school costs are personnel related. All the “low hanging fruit” has been picked clean.
Leadership must ensure that two primary objectives are met: First, we must educate our children. Past all the hyperbole, the fact that we are a “C” rated school, have a state evaluated high dropout rate, FCAT’s ranked in the bottom 20 percent in the state and that we spend more per student than most other schools in the state, does not exactly have us doing “high fives.” This is the truth and that alone should have all of us concerned.
Our consolidated school system operates under a complex set of rules created by multiple governmental agencies that can make local control more difficult. BUT every other school system statewide manages their operations except for ours. We have run out of money. We must understand what it is that we are doing wrong that brought us to this. Remember, there are multiple issues that have transpired and it’s not just about the inflation of the student roster this year. We have issues to deal with.
The school board must affirmatively take control of the immediate situation. Teachers, students, support employees and the general public need to understand that management is stepping up to the plate. Let the emotions subside and tell the truth, backed up by the facts of the situation. Nothing less will suffice. Reasonable economic sacrifice from all involved will be required to solve the dangerous emergency at hand. It is simply too late to make more minor adjustments in hopes of solving the $750,000 crisis. Whatever solution is found must be done quickly and completely. We owe that much to the individuals and families affected by previous miscalculations.
The conversation must start now. The immediate problem must be solved at once and with the knowledge and experience that the board and superintendent possess. There is no easy out to the problem of the moment. As to the future; multiple answers can be found. The CCFC has shared many helpful suggestions at many previous meetings that can and will save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. These suggestions include the need to have employees contribute a financial percentage to their benefit packages. CCFC suggested that changes to the district’s health insurance plan should be made to more accurately reflect what is truly reasonable and affordable. Costly so-called “double dipping” of benefits by employees and board members who may have other additional coverage should be eliminated. Staff should be “right-sized” to better and more accurately reflect the real number of students and plans for projected student enrollment should be better formulated.
As everyone recognizes, the first step toward recovery from this devastating shortfall is to recognize and acknowledge the real problem. Then, we must all work together to find a way to solve this emergency as well as always keeping the children’s needs first in priority.
The CCFC believes that a volunteer task force should be created quickly. It should include educators, school finance experts, knowledgeable area resources and others to help create realistic constructive financial solutions for the long-term betterment and financial health of our school district. We must be brutally honest to achieve better fiscal responsibility and a sound financial future.
Every taxpayer and resident of Franklin County has an important stake in this crisis. For some, the easy answer may seem to be “Levy more taxes.” We don’t need another temporary bandage on our hemorrhaging financial school wounds; it only delays the inevitable fiscal cliff and makes Franklin County a poor choice for business, personal and recreational investments and hastens the flight from our county. The problems and reasons behind declining enrollment, better use and management of an expensive and extensive physical plant, and educational achievement levels which have been rated sub-standard by state standards must all be addressed as part of this very real emergency.
I encourage every citizen to visit the Department of Education website to see the facts for yourself. Go to the “School Public Accountability Report” for Franklin County Schools, which contains several types of data (indicators) designed to inform parents and the general public about the progress of Florida's public schools. We will also put a link to that website on the Concerned Citizens’ website, www.ABetterFranklin.com
This immediate $750,000 crisis affects us all, whether you are a parent, have children in Franklin County schools or simply pay your taxes to fund the education of Franklin County students. The use and management of your tax monies have led us to this financial emergency. It must be solved and corrected now. Concerned Citizens of Franklin County is willing and able to help.
Allan J. Feifer is president of the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, Inc.