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Gov. Ron DeSantis was at Vero Beach HIgh School Nov. 14, 2019, to make an announcement on teacher pay and bonuses. Treasure Coast Newspapers

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体育在线365Florida’s school districts are about to be walloped with a nearly $233 million bill from the Legislature — because of the legacy of the Great Recession on the state's pension fund. 

体育在线365Specifically, Leon County and other Panhandle school districts could individually take an estimated $3 million hit to an already tight budget from legislation now being considered. 

体育在线365Though there's no knowing what Gov. Ron DeSantis will sign at the end of the legislative session, Leon County district officials are anxious and calculating effects on everything from teacher salary increases to the survival of after-school programs.

And they’re trying to figure out how to communicate this to parents.

Here’s what’s happening: The Legislature this month passed a bill () that would change how much state employers must contribute to their employees’ retirement pensions.

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体育在线365Because the money is invested, there’s a gap between the amount of money sitting in the fund, and the amount expected to be made. It depends in part on the stock market's fluctuations.

体育在线365At Monday’s School Board agenda review meeting, Board Chair DeeDee Rasmussen compared how Florida’s retirement system works to the way Social Security operates. The meeting is where School Board members discuss the agenda for the following day's public meeting.

“Right now, we have enough people in the system to support it,” she said of the state pension fund. But eventually, the unfunded gap — in previous years near $30 billion, according to legislative records — is going to have to be filled in, she said.

That gap, also called the unfunded liability, is the percentage of what a pension plan eventually needs to pay its retirees, and the cash and other assets it has on hand.

A 100% funded plan has exactly what's needed if all its members retired right now. The Florida Retirement System was last fully funded in 2008, but a collapse in the real estate market and the Great Recession created a shortfall and the fund was last reported at around 84 percent funded.“They’ve got to fix that while they can while they still have enough people in the system paying in," Rasmussen said. 

The problem, the Leon County school district says, is that the Legislature — which funds public education — isn’t giving any indication that it will help the district absorb the impact of a $3 million bill, on top of other budget cuts.

Rasmussen, for instance, asked the Board whether it was possible to pay the retirement contributions out in installments. 

But Sen. Ed Hooper, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the committee that introduced the Senate's version of the bill, told the Tallahassee Democrat he knew of "no way to prorate” the costs.  

体育在线365Hooper's committee, the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, introduced its bill based on a recommendation by another panel that meets yearly outside the Legislature to set the Florida Retirement System contribution rate.

He told the Democrat that the main goal of the effort is to keep Florida’s pension plan one of the strongest in the nation.

Getting 'underwater'

The state’s retirement system is the fourth largest public system in the nation, according to the Florida Department of Management Services, which oversees the Division of Retirement.

体育在线365"Once you get underwater, it's hard to get back to the surface," Sen. Hooper said. He noted the billions-dollar gap can't be fixed in "one swoop." 

"It's a big hit and school districts seem to be the biggest chunk," he said. 

体育在线365Last year, the increase to the retirement system that was placed on school districts was $35 million, school district lobbyist Jim Hamilton said.

体育在线365His firm, , represents several Panhandle school districts, including Leon, Escambia and Santa Rosa. Hamilton also is a registered lobbyist for the Florida Association of School Administrators. 

体育在线365This year, the burden to school districts because of the employer contribution increase is $232.7 million. The reason is because the bean-counters who measure the unfunded liability recommended it should decrease — by a lot. 

Understanding the 'burden'

Though Florida's retirement system is "well-funded" and "quite stable," it does not have "every dollar that they would need in 30 years," Hamilton explained. And though school districts won't have a choice but to pay the new rates, Hamilton said that legislative  "leadership does understand this is a burden." 

体育在线365The Legislature could still pass measures to increase the per-pupil funding amount — the main source of funding for school districts — to offset the costs of the legislation, Hamilton said. 

体育在线365"We're still three weeks away from sine die (the end of session), and a lot can happen," he said. If signed, the mandate would go into effect July 1.  

体育在线365"It's a false sense of funding," said Scott Mazur, president of the Leon County teacher's union. He told the Democrat that the efforts to increase teacher pay may end up “just reallocating” money, noting that he foresees programs being cut to offset the costs. 

At Monday's review meeting, district chief financial officer Kim Banks cautioned board members about teacher pay. 

“The total cost to the employer for the pay — not only what the employee takes home — all would come from” the same pot of money, she told Board members. “At the end of the day, it would mean less money home to the employee because we’re having to contribute more of that pot toward retirement.”

Leon Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna told the Democrat he was "cautiously optimistic" the Legislature will "slow down a little bit" on the bill: "Something's going to have to give, though hopefully not on the program side," he said.

Hanna echoed Rasmussen’s hope that school districts will be given an option to pay the retirement contributions in installments, rather than all at once.

体育在线365School Board member Rosanne Wood urged other Board members to “speak up.”

体育在线365“We may not be able to change it, but at least we need to raise our voices,” she said.

The conversation was reiterated at Tuesday night's School Board meeting. 

Contact CD Davidson-Hiers at CDavidsonH@jameswburdick.com, or follow her on Twitter @DavidsonHiers for news about education in Leon County and Florida. 

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