School board sets tentative budget amid concerns about “holes”

Alachua County School Board Chair Tina Certain responds to Member Leanetta McNealy’s concerns about the budget during the July 24 Special Meeting


GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At the July 24 Alachua County School Board Special Meeting, the board heard a presentation on the proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2024 and the proposed property tax rates. The budget will not be set until September, and the property tax rates can be reduced but not increased from the level set at this meeting.

“We’re going to have to market ourself really strong”

Finance Chief Keith Birkett began by saying it will “be an interesting year. It appears that education has become a large business, and we’re going to have to market ourself really strong.” He mentioned an advertisement he had seen for a charter school and said, “We need to be doing that type of thing. And we know that we are better than private schools, and we’re better than charter schools, and we have a lot more to offer. But we need to tell the public that. And we need a lot more positive things coming out in articles in the newspaper… They could be our biggest ally if they would just look at us and look at what we have.”

Proposed property tax rate is 7.96% higher than the rolled-back rate

The proposed total property tax millage (including the voter-approved one mill) for the school district is 6.432 mills, a 7.96% increase over the rolled-back rate of 5.958 mills and a 1.02% decrease from last year’s rate of 6.498 mills. For a $200,000 house with a homestead exemption, the annual increase will be about $27, and the increase will be about $40 for a $300,000 house with a homestead exemption.

The rolled-back rate is the rate that would raise the same amount of revenue as the prior year if applied to the current tax roll without new construction, additions, and other adjustments.

The General Fund budget for FY24 is $315,060,615, compared to $291,186,607 in FY23, with an overall increase of five positions from the previous year. Birkett said the fund balance is higher than it was at the beginning of the previous fiscal year, indicating that the district is in a better financial condition.

Birkett also said that the district doesn’t anticipate much impact from vouchers because “private schools are full.” He said he anticipates a “couple of church schools pop[ping] up around the community,” including a kindergarten class at Westside Baptist Church.

The FY24 budget, which now includes the Internal Service Fund (added in response to an audit), is $604,204,987. The amount that is comparable to last year’s budget is $553,179,805, an increase of 4%.

Concern about a lack of reduction in expenditures 

Board Chair Tina Certain said she didn’t see any reduction in expenditures or any strategies to compensate for declining enrollment (which will lead to reduced revenue) and increasing costs for health insurance, retirement plans, fuel costs for the transportation department, and inflation in general. 

Superintendent Shane Andrew said the budget is balanced, but they’re still hiring for the new school year, so there are some savings in vacancies. He said the ESSER team is working on rolling back the expenditures that are funded through ESSER, ESSER II, and ARPA funds. But, he said, “Today we don’t have a list of cuts… Certainly, we’ll continue to look for opportunities to save some funding and spend our taxpayer dollars wisely.”

Certain tried again: “So are all of the projected increases and expenses offset by the anticipated increase in revenue?” Birkett responded that fuel increases for two additional charter schools, health insurance increases, and property insurance increases were all included in the budget. He added that savings had “accumulated” in the current year’s budget, leading to the higher fund balance: “Right now, it looks like we have $5 million more than what we were last year at this time.”

“I don’t want DOE coming in and taking over our district”

Certain said she didn’t have enough information “to really move forward with this… I don’t think we should presume that our financial condition ratio is in better shape just because the balance at the end of the year is higher than it was last year because our expenses are higher… I’m only harping on this balance because… I don’t want DOE coming in and taking over our district–and they won’t hesitate to do it because they’ve done it before, up in the panhandle… We also know what just happened with our colleagues up the street, with the City of Gainesville and the utility.”

Member Leanetta McNealy said Birkett, who recently came out of retirement after Alex Rella resigned, was “gracious not to say all of the things that you have found… You found so many other things that you’re not willing to say out loud today… all of the holes that you have had to plug up.” She said she hoped Birkett would explain those things in one-on-one meetings with school board members.

Certain said detailed budget information should be presented to the public, and that’s the point of the monthly board workshops. McNealy said she agreed with that, but she wanted board members “to find out the holes that were left when the last person left [the Finance Chief position]… Some of the things that Mr. Birkett is not going to say publicly–and I don’t want him to–because that’s jeopardizing some of the things that took place before his arriving.”

Certain looked at her blankly and said, “I don’t even know what to do with that.” She added that the City Commission, for example, goes through their budget in detail by department, but the school board doesn’t get that: “We’ve never gotten that here.” She said she supports adding staff and personnel to support schools and students, but “when we make the choice to do that, we have to reduce expenditures in some other way.”

Member Diyonne McGraw said she wants to be “honest and open” with the public, but with new people coming into the Finance Department, it took time to come up to speed, and “you got to give people a chance to gather all of that information… and with Mr. Birkett coming out of retirement… they have been working overboard, trying to gather information.” She added that Birkett’s remarks about marketing were “music to my ears… As you said, we must spend money, especially on marketing–what we’re doing, what we’re offering, and more positive things.”

In response to a statement from Certain about some board members finding out about things “we need to know” and others not getting that information, McNealy clarified that she had not met with Birkett, but she was “interested in many other things that I get calls about. But I’m saying I will go to him because I know there are some deficits based on the transition that we’ve had.”

Member Sarah Rockwell made a motion to advertise the proposed tentative millage and budget, and McGraw seconded the motion. Certain thanked staff for the preparation of the budget but said she didn’t think the board had enough information to make an informed decision. 

Rockwell clarified that the budget is not finalized: there will be a public hearing to approve the tentative millage and budget on August 1, and there will be a public hearing to approve the final millage and budget on September 11. Birkett agreed that is the process but also said it’s “quite an elaborate process” to change the budget at this point and that changes would likely be made with a budget amendment after the budget is adopted. 

The motion was approved unanimously, with Member Kay Abbitt absent.

  • Yiu can tax us until we are broke. Nothing will change until you get a grip on students with disruptive behavior. Teachers don’t want to work in that environment.

  • Why do they fund education with our property tax? There should be a user fee if you have a kid in the public school system. Don’t breed em if you can’t educate and feed em. Your child is your personal responsibility. They need to change the state constitution about “free education”…looks like I’m going to have to raise the rents…
    affordable housing, ha!

    “It takes a village to raise a child” is communist thinking. They really did a number on the children by making them wear masks and staying home for the Covid lie. I will not forget. “Hey, teachers! Leave them kids alone”…that was child abuse.

    Reading, writing, & arithmetic and go back to real paper books and chalkboards. Have windows that can open for fresh air in classrooms, no AC. No cell phones at schools and have a dress code. Bring back corporal punishment for disruptive students.
    No free lunch at school! They should take your children away if you can’t educate and feed them. Your child is not my responsibility, it’s yours. Bring your child to school yourself or have them walk or ride a bike. Parents should have to pay for the school bus, not me. Parents should have to pay for the school nurse…

    • They don’t need to spend our property tax money on advertising…it’s public school.
      What a waste of money. They have lost their minds. They are out of control.

  • Homeschooling should be the default requirement, and have an application process to enroll in a brick and mortar system just like private and charter, magnet schools do. Behavior and willingness to listen to the teachers is key. Any kid with a repeat pattern of negativity should be kept in homeschool, and parent(s) held accountable.

    • While it makes sense for parents to be held accountable for some things, be careful stating parents should be held accountable for all things.
      That’s a dangerous road to travel. We, (most anyway), raise our children to hopefully do what’s right and make proper decisions taking care to be mindful of not only the outcome but the impact on others. Unfortunately, there’s some kids who no matter the environment they were raised just turn out to be bad people.
      That comes with that God given right to make one’s own decisions and many know, they’re not always the best. Hopefully we can learn from our mistakes. (Although with local voting habits, even that’s questionable.)

      • Until 18, you are personally responsible. Be married and plan to have kids if you want them.. Don’t dump them on me or the Public school system for daycare. Nuclear family is ideal.

        • Didn’t you get the memo? Nuclear family & mathematics are racist. The welfare state pays you to have children with no daddy. It’s a cultural thing.

          • You got that right. One of the main lessons we have from 50+ years running the Great Society welfare state experiment is that the government makes a horrible primary breadwinner for a family and an even worse father.

        • Was a word accidentally omitted? You’re not suggesting the child, until they’re 18, is personally responsible are you?

          Just hoping I’m missing something in the translation.

  • Birkett said, “Right now, it looks like we have $5 million more than what we were last year at this time.”

    Certain said she didn’t have enough information “to really move forward with this… I don’t think we should presume that our financial condition ratio is in better shape just because the balance at the end of the year is higher than it was last year because our expenses are higher…”

    If that doesn’t sound like an excuse for upcoming, unscheduled budget expenditures because of the “implied” budget surplus I don’t know what does. What local government entity have we heard these types of discussions from?

  • “we know that we are better than private schools, and we’re better than charter schools, and we have a lot more to offer.

    Really? Does that include the never ending failure to solve discipline problems, lack of support to teachers, bus drivers and other staff? Over staffing of administrators? Working against state law versus working to make it a seamless part of teaching and curriculum? Just exactly what does the disjointed public school system have more of to offer?

  • The modern trend to build bigger public schools and bus kids to them leads to so many of these problems. Most kids can’t walk or ride bikes to school anymore because their schools are so far away. Behavior problems are more difficult to manage with such large student populations.

    Smaller neighborhood schools with recess time, music, art and neighborly accountability might be a start to cure some of what ails public schools.

    I homeschooled my children, and have never regretted it! My grown children are some of my closest friends now, and they are teaching their own children, who are thriving. It’s a beautiful way to live!

  • More taxpayer $$$ won’t fix the dependent culture where 70% don’t have a responsible male adult (father). Time to drop the woke nonsense and focus on the basics of education including reading, writing, and math.

  • ” we must spend money, especially on marketing–what we’re doing, what we’re offering, and more positive things.”

    This is absolutely outrageous–why does a public school system need MARKETING EXPENSES?!

    A cynical person would say it sounds like Diyonne McGraw has found a way to funnel school funds into the pockets of friends/family/campaign donors–she’s a little too eager to waste money on this.

    There are already half a dozen school ranking websites out there, along with reports prepared by the district, that give parents a clear view of the strengths and weaknesses of each school. We don’t need wasteful billboards, TV commercials, etc. or whatever she has in mind.

  • School Board, why would you waste money on Advertising, when you have a captive audience? At some point you need to get do down to real businesses and cut expenses. You currently look like an overpaid group of underachieving losers..That means you are ripping everybody off with terrible student performance to show for it. Yes you do need direct State involvement and help.

  • May be they should have the Supervisor of Elections kick in some of her $$$ she is getting from the Church she is suing.

  • It is bothersome that the same tired arguments against public education come out each time an article like this is posted. Yes I think something shady is going on when a board member doesn’t want to comment on something in public and save it for private one-on-one meetings.
    We owe it to ourselves to fix our problems with the schools ourselves with how we raise our kids and invest in our futures. We are all the beneficiaries of tax funded public schools. I say to those who think we should only pay for our own kids education, that you are directly or indirectly the beneficiary of public education. Your doctor and health care field most likely graduated a public high school and a heavily subsidized public university. Your mechanic probably was educated at a public high school and also the beneficiary of a subsidized trade school. It goes on to every field and trade you can think of. I applaud those who can afford the time and/or money to homeschool or private school but it doesn’t fit everyone’s lifestyle. I for one have benefited from my country investing in my education and now invest in the next generation. Lastly, an educated populace leads to a more well informed electorate and I rather take my chances that my fellow citizens received an some education at public expense than none at all.

    “The Whole People must take upon themselvs the Education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expences of it.”-John Adams

    The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to establish and endow with proper Revenues, such Seminaries of Learning, as might supply the succeeding Age with Men qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country.
    Benjamin Franklin

    An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.
    Thomas Jefferson

    • Schools have stopped being places for learning about 10 or 15 years ago and are now just indoctrination centers telling children about sexual preference and scaring them senseless telling them that Global Warming is going to kill everyone and everything on the planet. If they would go back to the core ideas of math, english, Science, Social Studies, music and art, and yes even some gym classes it would go a long way to bring back some trust and even respect to the profession. Stop teaching kids what to think, and let’s teach them how to think!

  • Guess Birkett doesn’t realize “the paper” is basically irrelevant?

    • Unless you’re out of toilet paper, mullet wrapper, or maybe a blanket.
      Oh wait, the homeless would have to pay for the blanket.

  • Ms McNealey, when you said you’re grateful that Birkett did not talk about “plugging up holes”, and want him to “discuss that in private talks”, you violate a thing called the Sunshine Law. Your way of operating is not lawful.

  • I am not a lawyer, but…..The Sunshine Law was a response to that kind of behavior

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