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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rick Scott's education plan, fire teachers, stop programs, close schools

From the St. Augustine Record

by Lilly Rockwell

TALLAHASSEE -- Completely virtual 7th period classes. Teacher furloughs. Layoffs of hundreds of school employees. Four-day school weeks. Fewer school buses.

Those are just a few of the options schools districts across the state are mulling to close budget gaps that range from $6 million to $144 million. The budget holes are blamed in part on falling property tax revenue, the disappearance of federal stimulus dollars and proposed reductions in state funding for schools of nearly 7 percent per student.

Florida lawmakers want to cut funding to K-12 schools statewide by about $1 billion, one of the largest cuts in recent memory. Though school districts won't know their final numbers until the governor and Legislature agree on a budget, districts across the state are beginning to craft budgets based on legislative estimates.

For districts, these budget cuts come on top of five years of strict belt-tightening. Already districts have closed schools, eliminated thousands of jobs and in some cases, charged for popular after-school programs like sports.

"We've had economic downturns in the past, but they lasted a year, maybe two. They didn't have such a negative impact that we're seeing now because schools had reserves and were able to buffer themselves against a state budget cut," said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow.

While most districts have avoided any cuts that impact classrooms so far, such as laying off large numbers of teachers, Pudlow said next budget year schools are examining teacher layoffs and furloughs.

Republican lawmakers in charge of the state education budgets defend these cuts as the product of a tough economic climate and the consequence of losing $1.2 billion in federal stimulus dollars.

"We've had to make some tough choices on the state level," said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, who is in charge of the House budget committee on education. "I completely understand that the local school board members along with the superintendents will make equally tough choices, but that will be up to them."

The size of each district's budget hole varies widely. Some districts chose to levy local tax increases, others didn't. Some districts used all or most of their federal stimulus dollars, others socked it away.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, argued that schools can't blame the state for their budget problems. He takes into consideration unused federal stimulus dollars and savings from pension reform into his budget calculations.

"Based on the fact that most of the school districts kept their (stimulus dollars), in general there is an almost even funding from last year," said Simmons, the head of the Senate's education budget committee.

Preparing for worst

Still, school boards are preparing for worst-case scenarios. The populous Miami-Dade County Schools are bracing for a $144 million budget cut, on top of $400 million trimmed from the district's budget in the last four years.

The district has turned to its maintenance and construction departments to close the gap, with a proposal to cut maintenance worker salaries by 20 percent and lay off hundreds of district employees.

In Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, the school board is pondering turning its high school seventh-period classes all virtual. This would save the school district $1 million out of a possible $10 million cut.

District spokesman Chris Petley said 7th period is optional and only about 10 percent of students take classes that period anyway.

In Southwest Florida, the Lee County schools may have to cut the budget by more than $30 million, on top of cuts of $86 million over the last four years. Spokesman Joe Donzelli the district has already cut 700 positions over the last three years. For next year, the school board may choose to eliminate more than 50 "support staff" jobs.

"Our philosophy has been we don't want to start meddling with the classroom," said Donzelli said. "But there's no guarantee we won't lay off teachers. That is sacrosanct -- the last place the board wants to go."

Duval weighs furloughs

Meanwhile in Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, the school system is looking at a budget shortfall of $82 million. The district is considering several controversial measures to close the shortfall, including four-day school weeks, furloughs, increasing class sizes and reducing bus transportation to magnet schools.

Most school districts are reluctant to dip too extensively into their reserves for fear of damaging their credit ratings.

In Volusia County, which includes Daytona Beach, school board members had to cut deeply into their budget earlier in the recession.

In the last three years, Volusia County Schools have cut $75 million from the budget. Their budget troubles were compounded by the loss of students. State funds are tied to the number of students a district enrolls.

"We've been struggling," said Volusia County schools spokeswoman Nancy Wait. The school board has already tried the obvious cuts: cutting 1,000 jobs, eliminating some bus routes and closing schools.

Charging for sports

But the district also tried more unusual budget-whacking methods. It began charging for high school sports. It now costs $75 a sport and $100 for multiple sports at Volusia County high schools.

Now the district once again has to find a way to plug a $13 million budget shortfall.

"We have done just about everything you can think of," Wait said.

This year, the district hopes to maintain the roughly 500 jobs funded through federal stimulus dollars.

"The superintendent has gone on the record saying we will do everything we can to, number one, protect the classroom and number two, protect jobs as much as we can," Wait said.

In Pinellas County, where St. Petersburg is located, the school board is estimating a $60 million shortfall.

The district wants to eliminate roughly 400 jobs, though many of those could be cut through attrition.

"We have taken a real hard look at big ticket items, such as transportation, energy, health insurance and staffing," said Pinellas County Schools spokeswoman Andrea Zahn. The district has already cut $118 million over five years. "When you cut that much in five years and are targeting $60 million in one year it is drastic."

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