TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The name sounds wonky enough: District Cost Differential.
But beneath the bureaucrat-speak is a politically volatile issue that could spur a legislative debate in the coming weeks about how to divvy up billions of dollars among Florida school districts.
The House is moving forward with a budget bill (HB 5101) that would revamp the District Cost Differential, which is part of a formula used to distribute money to school districts each year. Also this week, the Senate Education Committee gave an initial approval to such a bill.
The issue is politically volatile because tweaking the so-called DCD can mean more money will go to some districts, while other districts will get less. For lawmakers who will head home in May from Tallahassee and face school leaders and parents, that can create high political stakes.
“If you tinker with it, somebody loses, somebody wins,” said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who is a former Leon County schools superintendent and works as chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
The DCD is a price-level index that is part of broader school-funding formula, known as the Florida Education Finance Program, that takes into account numerous factors in distributing money and totals about $21.1 billion this year. Those factors range from enrollment numbers to student transportation.
In concept, the DCD is supposed to help measure how much it costs to hire teachers and other school employees in different parts of the state. The House and Senate proposals would change to a wage-level index, rather than a price-level index -- a potentially major difference.
Lawmakers included $100,000 in this year’s budget to hire a consulting firm to conduct a study, which has helped fuel the possibility of changing the DCD. But the idea drew a lengthy discussion Tuesday in the Senate Education Committee, which voted to approve a DCD bill (SB 1284) sponsored by Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah.
While the bill passed the committee, Diaz promised to “pause” it until numbers could be run to determine the effects on school districts. He said it “could affect many counties differently, and there’s a lot of concern.”
“The question that’s going to be asked is, ‘How does this affect my district?’ ” Diaz said. “I’m going to be completely honest with you, we don’t know how this is exactly going to affect your district right now.”
The last big debate about the DCD came in 2003 and 2004 when then-Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, pushed through changes. The changes benefited some school districts and caused financial hits for other districts.
A key part of the debate involved factoring in the presence of “amenities,” such as proximity to beaches, in looking at where people want to live and how much they are willing to accept as wages. Some beachfront school districts have long argued that they have been penalized by factoring amenities into the equation.
“We all know that that (the amenity factor) doesn’t help teachers buy homes,” Diaz said.
But it was clear this week that the possibility of changing the system concerns some lawmakers, including raising questions about whether rural areas could be hurt by using a wage-level index in determining the DCD. Diaz said another part of the school funding system known as a “sparsity” supplement could help rural counties, but he said it is unclear how the changes would affect mid-sized counties.