Teacher’s union chief: State budget proposal raises concerns

Suncoast News | by Eric Horchy | February 17, 2021

LAND O’ LAKES — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ release of the state’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021-22 defied opinions that big, pandemic-related cuts loom on the horizon.

The $96.6 billion proposal would pump up the current total budget by more than $4 billion.

An intended beneficiary of the larger budget is education. According to the governor’s webpage on FLgov.com, $22.8 billion in total funding would go toward education. Included in that total is $12.9 billion for K-12 public schools, “the highest amount ever,” as reported in a state press release.

DeSantis would also like to see the effort to raise teacher salaries expanded. Last summer, the state voted to elevate the minimum salary for all Florida teachers to $47,500. Legislators voted to provide $500 million into the current budget and DeSantis’ budget proposal in late January increases that amount to $550 million.

The governor’s proposal is just that, however, and some Pasco County education leaders are still waiting to see true funding and district distribution numbers. The next fiscal year begins July 1 and the state’s 60-day legislative session to discuss budget matters gets underway in early March.

“We’ve all now seen the governor’s budget proposal,” United School Employees of Pasco President Don Peace said at a Pasco County School Board meeting earlier this month. “It is somewhat concerning as it appears to have placed an additional burden on districts to utilize increased local funding.”

Concerns included “the significant amount of funding that is going to be needed from the state” for districts to increase teacher salaries, as well as how the state’s new constitutional amendment to increase the minimum wage will affect schools. Florida voters approved Amendment 2 during November’s general election. The legislation would incrementally increase the state’s minimum wage — currently $8.56 per hour — to $15 per hour by September 2026.

Peace said the additional $50 million proposed to help increase teacher salaries “pales in comparison to the 67 counties it will be spread amongst.”

“It is incumbent upon all of us to have a conversation not only with our local legislators but with all of those who will be making the final decision on education appropriations,” the union president said. “It is our hope that the Legislature will not strap districts with the additional responsibilities needed to fund employees appropriately.”

Another issue that will impact the district’s funding allocations is figuring out how many students are going to be physically attending school next year, Board Member Cynthia Armstrong said. She noted that there “was a significant drop this year” because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that representatives partaking in a recent Florida School Boards Association legislative meeting had more questions than answers.

“Everyone seems to have different ideas on that and that’s going to really effect the budget and the funding per student,” Armstrong said.

School employee vaccinations

Prior to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking over Raymond James Stadium and rolling to a 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, Pasco County Schools employees age 65 and older were showing up at two locations to receive their first dose of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Why did we choose Super Bowl Sunday?” Deputy Superintendent Ray Gadd asked rhetorically. “We wanted to do it as quickly as we could, and the nurses had a virtual conference on Saturday. We needed the nurses to get the vaccines.”

Vaccinations were administered at the Gulf Middle School campus and Pasco County Schools headquarters in Land O’ Lakes.

The school district and Florida Department of Health in Pasco County coordinated to obtain vaccines for employees 65 and older in late January. Superintendent Kurt Browning mentioned during a mid-January school board meeting that 448 of Pasco County School District employees are in the 65-and-older age range. Because of the quantity of vaccine acquired, Gadd said, the district was able to get first-dose vaccinations to front-line school workers, such as nurses, clinic assistants and people working directly, one-on-one with children. Individuals working at My Health Onsite and Wellness Centers were also vaccinated. “That was important because those folks will serve as our vaccination core when we begin to vaccinate the whole school system,” Gadd said.

Photo: Pasco County Schools Deputy Superintendent Ray Gadd updated the school board on COVID-19 vaccine distribution to district employees age 65 and older. Enough doses were acquired to vaccinate nurses, clinic assistants and other front-line school employees, Gadd reported.

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