School board hashes out budget priorities 

School Board Chair Tina Certain discusses the budget at Tuesday's meeting.
School Board Chair Tina Certain discusses the budget at Tuesday's meeting.
Photo by Glory Reitz

The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) examined the proposed budget for the 2024 fiscal year at a special board meeting on Tuesday. 

After the board approved a tentative budget in August, SBAC Chair Tina Certain said she wanted a follow-up meeting to discuss more details. Certain and Board member Sarah Rockwell complained that informational materials were not available early enough before the August meeting, and Certain wanted the board to ask questions and discuss priorities. 

Chief of Finance Keith Birkett explained to the board on Tuesday that the budget is built on an enrollment and staffing model, because funding is dependent on enrollment. Birkett said his main concerns for the budget are maintaining enrollment, annual employee salary increases, inflation and utility and fuel costs. 

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SBAC Board Member Sarah Rockwell
Courtesy of Alachua County Public Schools Sarah Rockwell

The school district’s proposed budget is $604 million, and Certain said she is not confident that the district’s enrollment numbers will support a budget that large. She said the district has operated on overblown enrollment numbers before, leading to an overinflated budget. 

Birkett assured the board that the district works with projected enrollment numbers provided by the state and that Alachua County Public Schools already had 200 more students than the state expected, with more still enrolling late. 

Certain and other board members expressed concern over details that did not match up in the budget information packet they were provided. Though most of the inconsistencies were small, Certain said she was frustrated that different staff members did not all have the same information. 

“I feel even less confident in voting for this budget than I have in previous times,” Certain said. “I think it’s all cobbled together.” 

Certain also made a presentation to the board, explaining some history of the district’s budgets not balancing, the subsequent downgrading from Moody’s which will make obtaining a loan more difficult and expensive, and the board’s overall responsibilities for the situation. Certain provided four recommendations for the district going forward: 

  1. Facilitate budget priorities and budget mandates 
  1. Involve stakeholders in district planning 
  1. Communicate better about policies, programs and fiscal conditions 
  1. Develop and maintain transparent systems and processes to monitor results of programs and projects and adjust as needed 

With these recommendations, Certain also mentioned the possibility of forming a citizens’ ad hoc committee to provide further analysis of what the district should look like. She asked that in the future all board members attend budget committee workshops, not just the chair. 

“We’ve got the house burning down for student achievement, but our house is very unstable financially,” Certain said. “There are things we can do to keep it up, but this is unsustainable.” 

Board member Diyonne McGraw agreed with Certain that changes needed to be made, but she pointed out that a positive attitude was also necessary for brand-new staff trying to fix problems that were present when they came onboard. 

McGraw said staff has been working in fear, overloaded with the board’s requests, and she asked for patience as they make changes. 

SBAC Board Member Diyonne McGraw
Courtesy of Alachua County Public Schools Diyonne McGraw

“I get what you’re saying,” McGraw told Certain. “We all have to be fiscally responsible, but also, now we’ve got to give them a chance to work together and get training that they need to make sure that happens.” 

Rockwell agreed with Certain’s recommendations, especially on the citizen input. 

“I don’t think these recommended actions are a criticism of our current staff,” Rockwell said. “They’re ways to move forward with more transparency and more community input so that we make sure we’re doing the best thing for children.” 

Certain agreed, saying she had heard many of the district’s past mistakes mentioned in passing at previous meetings and wanted to pull all the information together in one presentation. 

In another attempt to get the board working together with the same information and unified goals, Certain had previously asked members to come to Tuesday’s meeting with their priorities for the district. After each member presented their two or three goals, Certain compiled them into a short list. She said she should help Superintendent Shane Andrew and his staff to work more effectively this school year. 

The board’s list is as follows: 

  • Improve reading scores and student achievement 
  • Improve transportation to get children to school on time so they can learn 
  • Improve student behavior and discipline 

Certain noted that strategic planning and rezoning are not on the list because they are already in progress. The board asked staff to come up with ways to measure progress toward these goals throughout the school year. 

Andrew reiterated the district’s ongoing, broad goals of safety, accelerated achievement for all students and student wellbeing.   

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