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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Looming school cuts

From the St. Augustine Record

by Kathleen Haughney

TALLAHASSEE -- Teacher layoffs. Few if any electives. School supplies that only last a school a few months.

Those are all scenarios that lawmakers are trying to avoid as they craft a budget for the state's public schools while Florida faces a $3.6 billion shortfall and the possibility that state programs already cut to the bone will be cut even further. All the "low hanging fruit" in previous budgets was wiped out over the past few years as the downturn in the economy caused the state --and the public school system -- immense budget pain.

"All that fruit is gone, at least in my judgment," state Education Commissioner Eric Smith told a panel of House lawmakers Tuesday.

For the 2010-11 budget, $18.2 billion covers teacher salaries, busing, instructional materials and a host of other expenses, including a school's ability to simply keep the lights on. It means that for each student, a school receives $6,843.

While lawmakers faced economic difficulties last year, they had federal stimulus funds to help plug the holes riddling state coffers. Now, those funds have largely dried up, particularly for education. The education budget last year relied on $1.2 billion in non recurring federal funds, staff said Tuesday during a meeting of the House Appropriations subcommittee on PreK-12 Education.

"We have a great challenge ahead of us and one we have to take very seriously," said chairwoman Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna.

The State Board of Education approved a budget request for 2011-2012 of more than $19 billion, but Smith and his staff have also prepared a budget scenario for lawmakers that involves a 15 percent cut.

"It's a starting point, certainly not an ending point," Coley said referring to the 15-percent cut exercise.

Legislative leaders have indicated that cuts in education - one of the biggest budget drivers -- are inevitable. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has said he will not sign on to a budget that includes tax increases, meaning something will have to be cut if the state wants to create a balanced budget, a constitutional requirement. His education budget chief, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte, has also noted that it will be a tough road ahead.

Darwin Boothe, a lobbyist for Seminole County School District, said the school district, and a few others, may not have to make any layoffs even if the Legislature makes minor cuts because of reserves the local school board put away in case of emergency.

However, Boothe noted that many districts dipped into those reserves this past year to help individual schools meet a constitutional requirement capping classrooms at a certain number of students. Reserves may not be available to blunt losses in state funds for the upcoming school year.

In 2002, voters approved a constitutional amendment that capped classroom sizes at 18 students in a classroom in lower grades, 22 in the middle grades and 25 students in core subject high school classrooms. The state has struggled to pay for the constitutional mandate, making it, in turn, difficult for schools to meet the requirement.

Boothe said he and other Florida school officials believe that the funding can be held at the status quo if the state continues to withhold funding from some of its long-term goals that can go without immediate funding. For example, though lawmakers in the past have wanted to put money toward purchasing environmental lands, they have not been able to fully fund that recently because lawmakers chose to prioritize other budget items.

If the school budget has to be cut, Boothe said schools will react accordingly, but lawmakers need to be aware of the practical impact of what the cuts may do.

"When you cut, you may not have the system you want at the end of the day," he said.

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