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School supt. addresses state delegation
By Larry Clifton
Sumter County School Supt. Richard “Rick” Shirley displayed his formidable debating skills while engaging state senators and representatives during the recent Sumter County Legislative Delegation meeting at the new Wildwood government complex.
Community leaders and elected officials from Sumter County conducted the annual meeting with a four-member delegation of state legislators to talk about issues that affect Sumter County.
Attending as state district representatives were Rep. Marlene O’Toole (District 42), Rep. Robert Schenck (District 44), Senator Paula Dockery (District 15), and Delegation Chair Rep. D. Allan Hays (District 25).
Shirley argued against a state funding formula that has Sumter County property owners paying for the education of approximately 1,500 out-of-county students attending The Villages Charter Schools.
Many of the schools’ students are the children of parents who work in The Villages but live in another county.
The “premier charter schools” have a total student body of about 2,100 students, according to Shirley, which means 75 percent of the schools’ students live in Hernando, Citrus, Marion, Lake or some other county.
At issue is a quirky state funding formula that accesses the Sumter County school district as one of Florida’s seven “revenue rich” districts, according to Shirley.
The result is that Sumter County property owners are forced to pick up 90 percent of the tab for the charter schools when only about 25 percent of the students live in Sumter County. The state pays about 10 percent. Shirley said the “unfair” funding policy responsible was created before growth rates soared in The Villages, a heavily populated retirement community.
Sumter County taxpayers pay about $5 million annually for the charter schools’ operations, according to Shirley.
Shirley said the charter schools are premier facilities and his intentions were to see them properly funded in a way that treats Sumter County taxpayers fairly.
“What would be the outcome should your solutions be passed into law?” asked Dockery.
Without hesitation, Shirley concluded that property tax rate could be lowered about one mil and that revenue would be replaced by state sources, not unlike the situation in surrounding counties.
“I’ll just ask you (speaking to Dockery), if this situation had occurred in Miami Dade, Duval or Orange counties, with their political power, would it stay like this?”
The same lawmakers who had peppered Shirley with questions earlier in the discussion paused.
“The answer is, no way,” Shirley said.
Shirley answered legislator’s questions quickly but thoroughly, protesting what he called the “unique, unfair funding formula” that no other school district currently faces.
In the end, none of the state legislators attending the delegation presented an argument to refute Shirley’s assertions that the state utilizes an unfair formula that undercuts Sumter County taxpayers and under funds the county’s charter schools.
Shirley also discussed class size, stating that the district could immediately save $500,000 annually by reverting to the “average class size” restrictions proposed last year instead of the specific class size restrictions implemented under current state law.
Other issues that Shirley addressed were synthetic marijuana and other synthetic compounds like K2, Salvia and other herbs that students use to get high but are legal to possess.
Dockery said that the bigger problem is prescription drugs.
Shirley said there is at least a legal jurisdiction that provides penalties under law for illegal use and possession of prescription medications while no such laws exist for the synthetics and herbs he mentioned, even though students are using them to get high.