Since the School Board decided to ask voters to approve the first one mill initiative back in 2008, the state has continued to cut school budgets drastically. Per pupil state funding, which was $4684 back then, is now down to $3328. That is a 29% decrease! Meanwhile state leaders continue to adopt expensive new requirements, such as additional testing.
In other words, the state's financial support for Alachua County Public Schools and all schools in Florida is even lower than it was when voters first approved the one mill, while costs have gone up. But thanks to the one mill, our district is in much better financial and educational shape than many other districts in Florida.
State leaders have been sharing that figure with their constituents and the media for the last few months, but it is very deceiving for a number of reasons. First, the state cut schools by $1.3 billion last year, so the $1 billion 'increase' doesn't even cover that loss. Second, the federal stimulus money that schools received to save teaching jobs in 2011-12 has now dried up. Third, property taxes are down across Florida because of our still-weak housing market. In reality, the $1 billion 'new money' for schools doesn't come close to making up for those lost funds and higher costs for things like the fuel we need to run our buses.
Under the ballot language approved by voters in 2008, the one mill could be spent only on school nurses, elementary art and music, elementary guidance counselors, media centers, middle school bands, academic and career/tech magnet programs and classroom technology.
Up to this point, $30.1 million in one mill revenues have been spent on those items, except school nurses. For the last four years, the federal government has decided to maintain funding for school nurses through the Medicaid program. Unfortunately, that funding is not guaranteed, and could be eliminated in the future.
During this school year, the one mill is funding 160 teacher positions, classroom technology and seven technicians who install and maintain all our classroom technology and paying for the technology.
All of the programs and positions currently funded through the one mill have been included in the 2012 ballot language. This includes school nurses. The School Board wants to make sure that all schools have a nurse regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C.
The board has added middle and high school guidance counselors, high school bands and middle and high school chorus programs in the 2012 ballot language.
For the last four years, an independent citizens' oversight committee has been meeting regularly to review one mill expenditures. That committee is made up of local business leaders and parents. The chairman, businessman Perry McGriff, makes a yearly report to the School Board and the public.
That oversight committee is again included in the ballot language, and must, by law continue to review and report on the expenditure of the one mill funds.
Actually, property owners won't have to pay any more than they've been paying for the last four years. The one mill ballot item would simply maintain the existing property tax rate for schools, not increase it. If you don't own any taxable property, the one mill doesn't cost you anything.
If voters approve the renewal of the one mill, it would remain in effect for four years,
Voters approved the lottery based on the promise that its revenues would supplement existing education funding. In reality, revenues from the lottery have simply replaced other revenues that schools received from the state in pre-lottery years.
Most of the money raised through the lottery is used to fund the Bright Futures college scholarship program, not public schools. Another significant portion is used on jackpots and advertising the lottery.
Lottery dollars have always made up a very, very small portion of the district's budget. In 2011-12, Alachua County received a total of about $75,000 from the lottery.
A number of national reports show that Florida's record for funding public schools is dismal. For example, the annual 'Quality Counts' report from Education Week grades states based on the quality of their K-12 education systems. That report has given Florida an 'F' for school spending for several straight years. According to the Census Bureau, Florida is ranked 50th among all states in per-student funding compared to wealth. This low level of funding has been the norm in Florida for years, and shows no signs of improving.
A strong, thriving community can't exist without strong, thriving schools. You may not have children in Alachua County Public Schools, but your future pharmacist, accountant, plumber and many of the other citizens you depend on each day are currently attending our schools, and we all have a stake in ensuring that they are getting a good education. Those children will one day become the taxpayers who help support this community, and the better-prepared they are to be productive citizens, the better quality of life we will all enjoy.
From an economic standpoint, good schools are a critical recruiting
tool for any community. When businesses and individuals are looking to
relocate, one of the first questions they ask is "How are the schools?"
High quality schools that project an image of a community that values
education help draw those businesses and professionals to Alachua County.
That means more jobs, new programs and technologies, greater economic
development and a higher standard of living for our citizens. An investment
in schools is an investment in the future for all of us.