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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Florida Schools prepare for massive budget cuts

From the St. Augustine Record

by Lilly Rockwell

TALLAHASSEE -- A glimpse at education budget proposals surfacing in the Florida Legislature this week show school districts are facing the largest spending cuts in recent memory.

Normally shielded from tough budget cuts because it is politically unpopular to target schools, education funding has a target on its back this year, Legislative leaders say, because there is nowhere else to turn. Lawmakers have suggested cutting Pre-K-12 budgets by nearly 7 percent, which is equivalent to over $400 per student.

One reason for the massive cut is the disappearance of federal stimulus funds that helped plug education budget holes the last two years. Schools used $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds last year alone to shore up education.

The House of Representatives has suggested a 6.96 percent reduction in the state funding formula that contains all state and local funds used to pay for schools. That's equivalent to a cut of $473 per student. The Senate is considering a more modest 6.57 percent cut, or $447 per student. Both of these proposed cuts are more conservative than Gov. Rick Scott's suggested reduction of 10 percent per student..

The Florida Education Association, which represents teachers and other school employees, warned that such a big drop in funding means school districts will have to cut or freeze salaries and positions. Other programs, such as courses and after school activities, would also likely be on the chopping block.

"This is the biggest cut than the past three years combined," said Mark Pudlow, FEA spokesman."You will be seeing a lot of jobs lost."

School districts have braced for the cuts, said Vernon Pickup-Crawford, a lobbyist for several school districts.

"Everybody knew from the get-go that this would be a tough funding year," Pickup-Crawford said, adding that "nobody is happy with the shortage of funds." He said the impact of the cuts will vary from county to county. Some districts might have budget carryovers from previous years, while others might have chosen to raise taxes.

There are still many budget issues to be worked out that could blunt the cuts that schools receive. One proposal would require public school teachers and other school employees to contribute toward their pensions. The expected employee contribution is one of the yet-to-be-resolved budget differences and will shape what type of cuts schools can expect.

Republicans in charge of budget decisions in the House and Senate say the next fiscal year is an unusually tough one for Florida. The state faces a $3.75 billion shortfall. Republican lawmakers said education was shielded from the toughest of cuts, with transportation funding being cut by a double-digit percentage.

"These are tough choices," said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, when she unveiled the House Pre-K-12 Appropriations Subcommittee's budget. Budget writers in the House had braced for even worse cuts.

Democrats criticized the funding cuts to education proposed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, called the cuts "abysmal" in an interview.

"We could look at other areas of the budget and find a way to curb these very, very bad cuts," Kiar said. "It appears to me that the people that have crafted this budget don't appear to have made education as big of a priority as they should have."

Though the per-student funding numbers aren't far apart, the House and Senate take different approaches on what areas to cut. The House would cut money for testing from $83.6 million to $78.8 million while the Senate boosts test funding to $86.6 million, a $3 million increase.

Some lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of slashing funding for testing right as the Florida is poised to enact a law that requires more testing of students in order to tie their performance to teacher pay. Some federal funds through Florida's $700 million Race to the Top grant will be used to pay for new tests.

Besides determining the funding formula used to pay for public schools, education budget writers also oversee money used to pay for programs dealing with mentorship, autism, teacher training, awards and extracurricular programs such as the state science fair. It also oversees Florida's public broadcasting system.

Nearly all of those programs face some type of cut in both the House and Senate budgets. The House would nearly eliminate funding for the state science fair and academic tournaments, while the Senate makes shallower cuts. The House wants to slash half of its funding for mentorship programs such as Take Stock in Children and Big Brothers Big Sisters. Meanwhile, the Jeb Bush-backed Governor's Mentoring Initiative remains untouched.

"Programs that directly help children that are big investments in our future, those are programs we should fund and it doesn't make much sense to me they are taking such large cuts," Kiar said.

The state-financed Florida Channel is also facing budget cuts under education funding proposals in the House and Senate. The House has suggested cuts of 30 percent and the Senate has suggested a 20-percent reduction.

Florida Channel Executive Director Beth Switzer said such reductions would force cuts in programming and layoffs because they come atop a 20- percent budget cut Florida Channel has endured over the last four years. Switzer said Florida Channel did escape a funding cut last year. "These are substantial cuts that concern us," Switzer said.

The chambers' education spending plans are far from final. Both House and Senate subcommittees on education appropriations expect to have final budget suggestions by the end of the week. Each chamber passes its own budget and then negotiates on a final compromise budget to be approved by the end of the 60-day legislative session.

"Where we are now and on May 6 can be two different places," Pickup-Crawford said.

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