Polk County School Board members, veterans and newcomers alike, got a primer on school financing this week as Chief of Staff Jason Pitts discussed this year’s $2.3 billion budget, where the money comes from, how different pots of dollars can be spent, and how the district loses funding to charter schools and counties not as “wealthy” as Polk.

Pitts explained that Polk County is the 24th largest school district in the United States, based on the number of students enrolled (116,000), and would be the single largest school district in 39 states. But in terms of funding, it is ranked 995th out of the 13,588 districts in the U.S.

He also compared Polk and Florida teacher salaries and per-pupil spending to other states from the 2021-2022 school year:

  • New York – $24,800 per student, with an average teacher salary of $87,738
  • West Virginia – $12,270 per student, with an average teacher salary of $50,261
  • Florida – $9,980 per student, with an average teacher salary of $49,583
  • Polk — $7,567 per student, with an average teacher salary of 46,151

“So West Virginia funds their students at $12,270 — about 30% of what New York does,” Pitts said. “Their state budget is way more committed to education than Florida. … We go to the very bottom state, no matter what funding information you’re looking at, like the amount of property tax, taxes that are going to support schools, Florida is 51st because District of Columbia usually beats us out on funding, so we’re definitely at the bottom of the barrel.”

Polk County has 135 district-run schools, plus 33 charter schools it is responsible for overseeing and funneling money to. It is now the second-largest employer in the county, behind Publix Super Markets Inc.

Pitts and Superintendent Frederick Heid reminded School Board members that it’s the Legislature and governor who dictate per-pupil spending in Florida. And the amount each district receives is based on the projected number of students the state believes will be enrolled in August.

Pitts simplified what happens when students arrive in the district after August, using easily multiplied numbers.

“Let’s say that the state is projecting we’re going to have 10 students and their budget is going to be $1,000 per student. Then in October the count comes in and there’s 15 students that showed up. And so that would be like $100 per student. Right?” Pitts said. “At that rate, $1,000 divided by 10 would be 100. And if 15 students show up, they’re not going to give us that extra $500. They’re going to adjust that down. So $1,000 divided by 15 will now be our funding per student.”

Pitts said the October number is usually the most accurate each year.

“It’s a five day count and the students have to be there at least one of those days to get counted,” Pitts said. “We’ve stopped short of bribing students to come to school that week.”

Another issue to factor into the amount that Polk County teachers are paid is the state mandate that the starting teacher salary $47,500 – or the highest amount a district could afford. But out of the $800 million the Legislature included in the state’s budget last year for increased teacher salaries, most of that money had to go to starting teachers’ pay in order to attract new educators.

The Polk Education Association, Polk County’s teacher’s union, bargained with district officials and came up with a starting teacher’s salary of $45,172 a year and a half ago.  But the school district said it did not have the money to raise the salaries of teachers with one to seven years’ experience and that has plummeted morale among some experienced teachers.

According to the Florida Department of Education, last year’s average salaries for nearby counties were:

  • Sarasota: $61,640
  • Hillsborough: $54,025
  • Pinellas: $52,187
  • Manatee: $51,102
  • Citrus: $50,087
  • Highlands: $49,980
  • Hernando: $49,759
  • DeSoto: $49,456
  • Hardee: $47,448
  • Pasco: $46,650
  • Polk: $46,151

Heid said his goal and that of the teachers’ union was to get to address the starting teachers’ salary as quickly as possible in order to begin giving experienced teachers raises as soon as allowable by the state.

Pitts provided detailed graphics and charts to the School Board members, showing Polk County is 62nd out of 67 districts in funding per student. Polk’s teacher pay is 35th in the state. But its spending on administrative costs, including employees at the district office in Bartow, is the third lowest in the state.

The district employs about 13,500 employees, not including substitute teachers:

  • Teachers – 6,312
  • Paraprofessionals – 1,065
  • Counselors/Social Workers/Nurses – 334
  • Principals/Assistant Principals/Deans – 432
  • School Secretaries – 437
  • Custodians – 599
  • Food Service – 755
  • Bus Drivers/ Attendants — 580
  • School Resource Officers/Guardians – 145
  • District support – 1,595

Pitts also explained that the Legislature requires the local school tax to remain about the same year after year – called compression.  He said even as property values rise, the school’s tax, called a millage rate, has remained about the same.  Former State Sen. Kelli Stargel got the Legislature to agree to do away with that for the last few years.

And not all counties are funded the same.  Pitts said for every $1 Polk County sends to Tallahassee, it receives less than 97 cents back, with the additional funding going to a poorer counties.

Pitts pointed out that there is a growing funding inequality. For instance, in the 2021-2022 school year, Polk County was funded at $7,567 per student.  But the highest-paid district, which was not named in his chart, received $10,359, while the lowest district received $7,139 per student, with an average of $7,812.  That meant Polk County, with a student enrollment of 112,515 that year, lost out on $27.5 million.  Over the last 10 years, Pitts said Polk has been underfunded by a total of $272 million.

School Board member Kay Fields spoke up and seemed to address her comments to new School Board member Rick Nolte, who criticized the board during his campaign for not giving all teachers raises and said he would do so if elected.

“I think it’s important for everyone to understand the process,” said Fields, the longest-serving board member. “I think that it’s important for us to understand we can only do so much as board members. And when we were out campaigning, a lot of us were accused of not wanting to do what was best for teachers, that we’re not getting raises. … You know we can say a lot of things that we’ve got to do, but we can only do so much. And so we just need to continue to do what we’re doing.”

Fields said Heid has a plan to help all teachers’ salaries.

“Hopefully when you come, we’ll be able to have the resources in place and we’ll be able to give our employees what they deserve,” Fields said. “And really, they’re going to deserve more than what we can give. But we can only do so much. So I think that they’re important for all of us as board members not understanding and the statements that we’ve heard for years is that we are top heavy here at the district office, which is not true.”

At one point in the meeting, as Pitts was mired deep in the minutiae of education funding, he paused and told the board that they were doing well following along, except for one person he did not name.

“There’s only one of you that’s close to nodding off, but I will call on you to answer a question,” Pitts said.

Polk County Public Schools Chief of Staff Jason Pitts points at School Board member Rick Nolte during the work session on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

About 15 minutes later, as he was discussing the coding of the different kinds of services, he stopped, grinned, and pointed at Nolte. Like a teacher rousing a drousy student, he directed a question at him: “Mr. Nolte, do you know what the second (code is)?”

The next School Board work session is Tuesday, Jan. 24, at 12:30 p.m. at the School Board headquarters, 1915 South Floral Ave. in Bartow. A School Board meeting will follow at 5 p.m.

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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