Florida's False Choice: Taxpayers Being Duped into Choosing Between Education and Medical Care

TALAHASSEE, Fla. – What’s happened to Florida Gov. Rick Scott?

When Scott took office earlier this year, he wasted no time establishing himself as a bold education reformer by placing limits on teacher tenure, basing teacher pay on student achievement, and increasing the number of charter schools.

Scott deserves credit for getting those reforms across the finish line, but he seems to have lost his nerve for bold action in the current fight over school funding.

Instead of explaining to taxpayers how Florida’s public school budgets are being overrun by special interest labor unions, Scott is sounding like a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, telling lawmakers he will “not sign a budget … that does not significantly increase state funding for education.”

Scott says he wants to “invest” – a favorite union buzzword – a billion more dollars into public education, and would pay for it by cutting $2 billion in Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals.

State Democrats wasted little time in framing Scott’s proposal as “school books versus seniors.” That’s a pretty harsh but nonetheless accurate analysis.

Scott is buying into (and selling) the faulty premise that Florida’s public schools are being underfunded by taxpayers. Instead, the governor’s focus should be on how school employee unions divert millions of dollars away from classrooms and into expensive, goodie-filled labor contracts that benefit adult employees at the expense of students.

And there are far too many employee unions sucking too much money from Florida school budgets.

In addition to teacher unions, Florida’s public schools are awash in unions for custodians, mechanics, daycare workers, bus drivers, bus aides, security personnel, office personnel, interpreters for deaf students, groundskeepers, painters, plumbers, carpenters, delivery personnel – the list seems endless.

An EAG investigation found that Florida’s 10 largest school districts use 117 unique salary schedules – as defined in collectively bargained contracts – to pay non-instructional employees. These salary schedules guarantee employees an automatic pay raise every year, whether their districts can afford it or not.

In addition to automatic raises, many union contracts contain dozens of costly provisions for things like free or low-cost health insurance, free or low-cost pension plans and generous reimbursement for unused sick or personal days. The contractual perks cause school labor budgets to balloon as state aid continues to decrease.

Earlier this year, the St. Petersburg Times reported that payouts for unused sick days cost the Miami-Dade County school district around $20 million and the Pinellas County district nearly $10 million.

As a result, low-seniority teachers are laid off, academic programs are cut and extracurricular activities wither away. The schools certainly have a money problem, but it’s not due to a lack of revenue. It has more to do with their bad habit of paying too much for labor and spending too little on kids.

Instead of offering false budget choices of “hospitals or schools,” Gov. Scott would do well to educate Florida citizens about how the unions have turned public school budgets into their private financial playground.

The Santa Rosa model

Some Florida schools have managed to weather the financial storm on their own by tackling runaway labor costs.

The Santa Rosa district is a good example. Like most districts, it has felt the effects of decreased state aid. Santa Rosa’s current operating budget is about $15 million less than last year’s budget.

But school officials did not have to hit the panic button, or demand tax increases to maintain their programs. Instead they made some “tough decisions,” including the privatization of their food, custodial and transportation programs, a gradual process that began in the 1990s.

“(The tough decisions) are paying dividends because we are very solvent and we are able to navigate through the next year without too much concern,” Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick recently told NWFDailyNews.com.

Jim Crane, director of purchasing and contract administration for Santa Rosa schools, helped implement the district’s privatization plan, which was among the first in the state. He’s seen the benefits of privatization first hand.

“We’re saving millions per year because we contracted out, and we’re getting better service,” Crane told EAG. “It’s been a net plus for us.”

Crane notes the district’s switch to privatization was very gradual. Instead of replacing union employees with private sector counterparts immediately, Santa Rosa decided to replace employees through attrition. As they quit or retire, they’re replaced with contracted workers.

Eighteen years ago, two-thirds of Santa Rosa’s custodial staff were district employees, and were paid according to contractually negotiated salary schedules. That’s down to two percent today.

When salary and benefits are averaged out, a custodian employed directly by the district costs twice as much as a privately contracted custodian, Crane said. District-employed transportation employees cost one-third more than their private sector counterparts.

Privatization hasn’t solved all of Santa Rosa’s financial woes. The district has been forced to lay off teachers over the past few years. But it would be in much worse shape without the moves.

Crane said districts should consider privatization, but warns “it’s not a panacea either.”

“Successful privatization doesn’t just happen,” he said. “It takes a district working closely with a contractor. It requires a partnership.”

Charter school spending focused on students

Tim Kitts is the founding principal of Bay Haven Charter Academy, which educates 2,000 students in five charter schools in Florida.

Charter schools receive about 10 percent less funding than traditional public schools, making state budget cuts even more difficult to absorb. Bay Haven charters have been forced to tighten their budgets, but they’ve never done it at the expense of students.

BHCA has consolidated and cut administrative and clerical positions in order to balance its budget, but it has not made any cuts to the teaching or paraprofessional staff.

“Any position that has direct contact with kids – teachers, paraprofessionals, intervention specialists – we’ve kept intact,” Kitts said. “We’ve kept our commitment to academics and to the fine arts.”

Kitts noted that BCHA’s teachers, food service workers and bus drivers are all employees of the academy, and none of them are unionized. That means labor costs are lower and more money is available for instruction.

When asked if his peers at traditional public schools care envious of Bay Haven’s lack of employee unions, Kitts replied, “That would be an understatement.”

“In traditional schools, employees think they have a right to a guaranteed career. It’s hard for people to break that mental cycle,” Kitts said.

Kitts believes the schools’ management and staff work cooperatively, with the understanding that the schools exist to serve the students, not the adults.

“Like parents and students, our employees choose to come here,” he said.

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