Lake County Public Schools come in near the bottom of the list when it comes to the amount of money the state spends on its students, ranking 65 of 67 districts.
School officials want to change that, and they think they have a valid argument.
Through the Florida Education Funding Program (FEFP), the state reimburses each school district with a calculated amount of money per student, based on a formula. Lake County leaders say that formula is flawed and is costing their schools at least $5 million annually in state money.
Bill Mathias is the Lake County School Board's newest member, and he's already questioning what he said the county has accepted for years. Mathias points to Collier County, in southwest Florida, which is similar to Lake County in its demographics and student population, but receives more money.
"Collier County is getting $7,100 per student, and Lake is getting $6,000," he said, adding that some of the discrepancy lies in transportation funding. "We're spending $16 million, and the state is giving us $7.9 million. There's a huge spread there."
Mathias points to the fact that Lake County school buses cover a lot more miles than other districts to transport the same number of kids. But in FEFP formula, the mileage that school buses have to travel isn't part of the calculations. Mathias explained, "So we may go forty miles before we even pick up a child, but the state only allows us $383 per child. That is the fallacy of the state formula."
Add to that, the number of students who live within two miles of school but still get picked up by a bus for safety reasons even though the state doesn't reimburse for children who live that close, and Mathias point to at least $5 million the district could be getting.
Fiscal watchdog Vance Jochim applauds Mathias. "That's what this needs, is a professional approach," he said. "Someone to dig into all the details, and find the hidden savings."
Mathias said he believes the state's formula, which has been used since the 1970s, has been questioned before, but because it is so complicated and because it's always been the way it is, no one has ever pinpointed the precise problem. "If I can get $5 million back, I've done my job," he said.
Now, other school board members are now taking a closer look at the state's formula as are some county commissioners. Mathias said the next step is to challenge the Florida Legislature and get the state's formula tweaked, to be as he sees it, more equitable.