Vitti’s First-Year Budget Woes

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has submitted his first budget to the Duval County School Board and is quickly learning there might not be enough money to fund everything he or others want.

“Upon my arrival in Duval County last November, I sought to engage our educators, the community and other stakeholders to determine the greatest priority and need for our students, parents and our district,” Vitti said in a news release.

School budget officials expect the total revenue for all sources for the 2013-’14 school year to be about the same as the $1.6 billion received for the current fiscal year.

Deducted from the new budget is an $8.5 million pay increase for teachers, aides and clerical workers, a $22.88 million teacher salary bonus approved by the Legislature and $8 million in health care increases.

While the Legislature approved $480 million in teacher pay raises statewide, the devil is in the details. The School Board and Duval Teachers United will negotiate how much more teachers and other district employees will receive in their paychecks.

For the first time, the School Board is looking at a zero-based budget and a realignment of schools into four groups. In past years, district divisions were allocated a certain amount of money and were able to budget the money as needed. With zero-based budgeting, the expenses or costs of the prior year are not taken into consideration when establishing a budget. Each expense category starts over at zero, according to the website

“The zero-based budgeting ensures efficiency with the budget by requiring each division and the superintendent to question each penny spent to ensure alignment of the new strategic plan,” said Marsha Oliver, a district spokesperson. “This process has reduced district administrative cost, reduced contracts and shifted funding to support schools and students.”

Under Vitti’s plan, each of the district’s elementary schools will receive its teacher allocation based on the number of students, with kindergarten through third-grade classes having up to 19 students per teacher and grades four through six with 23 students per teacher. Higher grades require one teacher per 24 students for basic classes, while others, such as gifted programs, allocate one teacher for every 65 students.

Each middle school and high school will have an enrichment math teacher, an enrichment reading teacher (who is a reading coach), a visual arts or music teacher, a full-time substitute teacher, a disciplinarian dean and an in-school suspension teacher.

Also included in the budget proposal is $49 million that will go the district’s 21 charter schools. Vitti indicated a desire to attract charter students and their families back into the school system. Money paid to charter schools comes from the school district budget. According to the Florida Department of Education, 7,755 students attended charter schools in Duval County in spring 2013.

One of Vitti’s plans is to trim the number of employees working at the district office to free up money and resources to go to the district’s 183 public schools.

He plans to reduce the number of central office administrators by 36, from 262 to 226, saving more than $5.4 million, to be used in other areas.

Former mayor and School Board member Tommy Hazouri has some misgivings about Vitti’s zero-based budget ideas.

“Quite frankly, from all I know, read and heard, and as much I fought for his appointment, I don’t believe he or his staff brought in from Miami and elsewhere have a handle on the district’s budget,” Hazouri said. “The superintendent has a strong academic background, and while his ideas sound great, he has been making promises that he cannot keep. The board has been asking the hard questions and, hopefully, a responsible funded budget will be passed that is not a Band-Aid approach, shortchanging our kids.”

Hazouri said being a School Board member is harder than being a mayor because of the budget process.

“As mayor, you had control over your budget. School boards rely on the state Legislature, the Department of Education and the federal government,” Hazouri wrote in an email.

The new budget also calls for an additional 30 minutes of instruction in middle and high schools, and the restoration of eight-period days. Middle schools will now run 9:30 a.m.-4:15 p.m., and high schools will run 
7:15 a.m.-2 p.m.

The district has reached an agreement with Duval Teachers United to create a 90-minute block of collaborative planning time each week, the key recommendation from a study by Education Resources Strategies, which was partially funded by the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

Terrie Brady, DTU’s president, did not return a message seeking comment on the district’s budget proposal.

Some of Vitti’s other plans may be going by the wayside as he and the School Board hash out the budget in a series of meetings, with a goal to approve the tentative budget and tentative millage rate by July 30. Final approval is scheduled to be given Sept. 17, just two weeks before the start of the new fiscal year.

A plan to make changes in the school’s gifted education program was scrapped because of pushback from parents and teachers. Vitti’s plan called for gifted teachers to travel from school to school. The main criticism was that gifted students tend to flourish in a group setting with other gifted students.

Plans to give every student a digital device, like a laptop, tablet or e-reader, may be impossible under the current budget, so Vitti said he could cut the number of devices to 50 percent.

By fall 2015, half of all classroom instruction must use digital materials, such as Wi-Fi-enabled tablets or computers, because of state law.

Vitti’s original plan was to place a math and reading coach in every school, but that may be too expensive.

“Maybe I wouldn’t put them in every school, maybe they would only be in C, D and F schools,” Vitti said at a May 15 budget session, according to The Florida Times-Union.

Media specialists at the district’s middle and high schools are worried that a proposal to give each principal the choice of having a media specialist, better known as a librarian, or a testing specialist, means they will be out in the cold, because of the current emphasis on testing.

A media specialist, who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisal, believes the district is marginalizing her job. She said this district’s media specialists play a vital role in the students’ success.

“If we want to create a nation of readers, this not how we do it,” she said. “I have some grave concerns about the future of our students being readers in Duval County.”

During a Feb. 25 meeting with a group of media specialists with Media Educators for Duval in Action (MEDIA), Vitti emphasized the importance he thought the group held in the school system.

“The role I see is for media specialists 
in every elementary, middle and high school moving forward. I want to caution you 
that I can have any vision I want, but the Board has to approve the budget,” Vitti said at the meeting.

“What I envision is support on my end to fund media specialists. I think we can do it,” Vitti said. The plans have changed.

While the media specialist budget remains the same as last year’s, middle and high school principals will now have the option of using the media specialist positions for full-time test coordinators.

“This decision allows principals who know their students, staff and community best to decide the most urgent needs of their schools,” said School Board member Ashley Smith Juarez in an email to the MEDIA group.

The school system is also taking a 
serious look at security. Under the proposed budget, there would be at least one unarmed security guard at all elementary schools and an armed school resource officer at each secondary school.

While the district is required by 
law to withhold 3 percent for reserves, or about $26.5 million, the board has decided to withhold 7 percent or $61.38 million.

“We need to ensure that our district has enough unassigned funds in the fund balance so we are protected for an economic downturn or a shift in funding from the state or federal level,” wrote School Board member Rebecca Couch in an email.

Duval County teacher and blogger Chris Guerrieri believes reducing the reserves could save the jobs of media specialists.

“The board wants to sit on 7 percent when only 3 percent is required,” he said. “They could sit on double what they are statutorily required to sit on and pay for the librarians.”