The coronavirus threat has colored every aspect of running Volusia County Schools, and the budget is no exception.
Every year, the Volusia County School Board grapples with a budget deficit and, every year, board members bemoan the existence of a complicated state funding formula called the District Cost Differential (DCD).
The DCD lowers the amount of money Volusia County Schools receives from the state.
Volusia budget planners automatically start with a deficit that the district then scrambles to reconcile. But this year, the board has the added uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic to contend with.
The topic heated up at the May 12 virtual School Board meeting.
“I don’t see the DCD changing for another 50 to 100 years, and so we gotta be smart and find other ways,” Chairwoman Ida Wright said.
Uncertainty colored a discussion of the upcoming budget, which will be finalized in early September, as the school district tentatively toyed with the possibility that life will not be back to normal by fall.
Discussing possible cuts to the budget, which could include staff positions if the crisis stretches into the next school year, longtime School Board Member Linda Cuthbert grew frustrated with the burden on the district.
“We are always the ones — when there is a time of crisis, the school district is always the first one to hand out food to our students,” Cuthbert said. “We’re the first ones to open up our schools for Volusia County when there is a hurricane.”
She continued, “We’re always there for the county when they need us; right now, the county needs to be there for us.”
Pointing out that the school district is the largest employer in the county, and that corporations and businesses have received the lion’s share of relief funding, Cuthbert doubled down on the idea that legislators have not supported education, to the detriment of Volusia’s schools.
“It’s time we put the onus on the ones in charge of funding,” Cuthbert said. “We have an election in November, six months from now. When will our state legislators start working for Volusia County?”
Growing increasingly animated, Cuthbert pointed out that the district does not control many aspects of the budget. Tax rates for major portions of the School Board budget are set by the state.
“We can’t hold a bake sale,” Cuthbert said. “We do not control the millage … we just can’t raise the millage like some cities and the County Council can … so we have to go begging.”
She said school-system finance officers “have been twisting numbers until their fingers are raw,” and emphasized that the Florida Legislature should be helping.
“It’s a conversation we need to have, and we probably need to have it sooner rather than later,” Wright said. “We are the largest employer, but many larger employers are laying people off. Those are the tough decisions we are facing; that is our reality.”
While the district finance team combs through every line item in the budget for savings opportunities, Superintendent Dr. Scott Fritz reminded the board that things are in flux.
“This is the beginning of the process; many many things will change along the way. As the chair says, things that are in our control, we will control,” he said.
The idea that the school system bears an unfair burden carried over when the topic shifted to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic in the time of hurricanes.
Unlike in neighboring counties, Volusia County school personnel are solely responsible for staffing and managing hurricane shelters that open at school sites.
This came as a surprise to Fritz, who left a position in Osceola County to begin working for Volusia County Schools in December 2019. Board members educated him on the situation.
“Dr. Fritz, we are doing everything,” Board Member Jamie Haynes said.
Because school staff are essential personnel, during a combined pandemic-and-hurricane event, employees may be required to expose themselves to the diverse populations that use the shelters, and possibly crowded conditions.
“If our people are doing everything, then you are right, we probably need to have a conversation,” Fritz said. “Now is the time to have that conversation.”
Fritz set a plan for him, along with the School Board attorney and a School Board representative, to meet with the county’s Emergency Operations personnel and the county manager.