Following the Paper Trail

Lexi Mariash, Staff Writer

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

Science teachers at Gaither High School entered school this year with an empty office supply account and no money for paper. 

Budget cuts have left the department underfunded, but documents and statements are bringing up more questions than answers. 

The biggest one of them all: Why did this happen?

Initial Observation

Paper is a necessity in all classes, but especially science. With all the diagrams, tables, data and information that students need to learn in a short amount of time, it is vital that they have access to these materials.

The lack of supplies didn’t immediately raise flags

“It’s not that we had unlimited paper before,” said biology teacher Ettore Minutillo. “In the past you’ve seen [me and other teachers] fit two to four sheets of paper on a single piece so [we] don’t have to spend twice as much paper.”

This year the department was left worse off than usual. Social Studies Department Head Patrick Geanconteri and other department heads stepped in to help, sharing their extra resources with science.  

The Fact of the Matter

Science, the Fine Arts department and Career and Technical Education (CTE) are departments that receive state funding. Science Department Head Katherine Cutro confirmed that the science department typically receives two budgets each year and has for every year she has been department head. The state provides money for the subject-specific supplies and specialized materials based on the course; the school provides money for general office supplies.

Cutro explained that her department is not the only one that receives money from the state but was the only department that was defunded by the school. The other departments with school resources reportedly received their full funding amounts from last year.

These school resources are extremely important for science. While Fine Arts and CTE can fundraise and charge studio fees, science cannot.

In an email, Hillsborough County Secondary Science Supervisor Daniel McFarland emphasized that “since it is illegal in the state of Florida for a public school to collect a lab fee for students to participate in labs, the funding structures are vital to make sure that students have what they need.”

Over the summer, Cutro met with Gaither bookkeeper Pamelyn Foreid to inquire about the science budgets.

According to Cutro, Foreid informed her that there was no money in the office supply account. Foreid also recommended that Cutro use DonorsChoose to acquire office supply funds for the fiscal school year. DonorsChoose is a non-profit organization that teachers can use to receive donations for classroom supplies.

Scientific Method of Funding

According to the 2018-2019 Citizens Budget Report published by the county, 50% of the budget is allocated in the spring before the new school year. The money given to each school is adjusted 20 days into the school year when an official count of students is taken. This was confirmed by Foreid. 

“Dollars are allocated for specific categories such as: custodial supplies (paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning supplies), teaching supplies, Exceptional Student Education forms, periodicals, art supplies, science supplies, sixth-grade specials (wheel), and career and technical supplies,” according to the report. 

This means that the money from the state is designated in specific ways for science: science supplies including but not limited to test tubes, dissection kits and chemicals. The science department counted on the school to provide for office supplies like pens, pencils and, of course, paper. In other words, the science department needs two accounts to successfully serve students.

The state of Florida provides funding to the district that supports science education (and all other education) according to the rules outlined in Florida Statute 1011.62,” McFarland said. 

Florida Statute 1011.62, the funds for operation of schools statute, lays out the budget for Florida schools and how that budget is determined. The statute confirms the base student allocation system where, “during each of several school weeks… a program membership survey of each school shall be made by each district by aggregating the full-time equivalent student membership of each program by school and by district.”

In short, this states that the money given to districts by the state is based off the student population.  The more students at a school, the more money the state gives.

Accounting for Variables

According to McFarland and Foreid, there is a standard formula for allocating the science funds. This formula sets 10% aside to account for any changes in the allocation or other contingency issues. The remaining 90% is divided into two equal amounts and schools generally grant access to one each semester. 

Matthews and Foreid confirmed that Gaither used this formula.

According to Gaither’s official budget report, they allocated $4,345 under the title “Science Supplies (7002).”  

Documents from McFarland revealed that the department should have received a total of $10,465.29 for science for the school year. Applying the established formula to the confirmed amount indicated that Gaither’s semester budget should have been $4,765.95.  

This yields an approximate $900 discrepancy and no trace of an office supplies account for science in the budget.

Administrative Response

Cutro followed the chain of command to gain answers about the funding. She contacted the assistant principal for curriculum Stephanie Matthews via email on July 30. 

On Aug. 5, Matthews responded that she would “check into it.” 

However, on Oct. 14, Foreid and Matthews both said there was only one account for the science department. These statements differed from the documentation and emails from months prior which implied that there was a second account for office supplies that was not funded.  

Principal Thomas Morrill said that he was first told about the fund situation at a department head meeting, a meeting he sits in every week. Morrill states that he believes the lack of paper is rooted in a bigger issue at the school, which is a lack of communication among staff, both teaching and administrative.  

On Friday Nov. 1, an email was sent to Foried, Matthews and Morrill to request any form of documentation that would disprove any of the claims made by other sources.

On Monday Nov. 4, an email from Foreid stated that “there is a budget for AP Science supplies yearly again distributed by the district. If they teach Science ELP they are able to receive supplies through the ELP supply budget. We have a school paper budget for departments that do not have supply budgets as well as custodial supplies that are provided when needed.”

This statement did not come with any supporting documentation.

On Thursday Nov. 6, documentation that led to the question of the $900 unaccounted for was sent to Foreid to clarify why there was a difference between the school and county documents. Foreid said she contacted bookkeeper support to understand where the discrepancy came from.

At this time, the administration has not provided any documents regarding previous school budgets, signature sheets or any documentation to support that there was only one account for this school year.

Measuring Impact

Gaither science teachers set up DonorsChoose accounts and found sponsors for paper. The science department has received paper donations from other department heads and has recently been granted access to the main office’s paper. 

“In the end, this issue doesn’t affect me as much as it affects them [the students],” Minutillo said. “As much as the lack of paper frustrates and stresses the hard working teachers at Gaither, it also restricts the potential of the students in science courses.”

Junior Abby Rey, who is enrolled in two science courses including one Advanced Placement, stresses the importance of allowing teachers to have access to the resources they need to help their students be the best they can be.

“The shortage of office supplies affects me  greatly. The lack of lab materials and papers available limits our ability to do certain labs, some of these activities are essential in teaching us the material adequately. There’s been a noticeable change in the amount of resources available to us compared to previous years,” Rey said.

“If one department is hurting it affects the entire school. It does spill over,” Geanconteri said. “[The science] kids are my kids, my kids are the math kids, and so on. So if one department drops, every department is going to feel that.”