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Monday, May 16, 2011

Florida's budget cuts push education past the breaking point

From the Orlando Sentinel

By Leslie Postal and Dave Weber

The choice of classes is smaller these days at Lake Howell High School, the wait for a guidance counselor longer and the campus shabbier, with its once blue floor tiles worn to a dull gray.

Like other Seminole County schools, Lake Howell still prides itself on solid academics. But the state budget cuts that began four years ago have taken their toll, and the fallout will escalate with the bare-bones funding the Florida Legislature approved this month, said Principal Shaune Storch.

Lawmakers slashed education spending by nearly 8 percent for the coming school year, the deepest in decades. Per-student funding will drop $542 while the state's contribution to schools will be the smallest since 2003.

Those cuts are just the latest since the 2007-08 school year — cuts that already have forced administrators to eliminate classes, do away with social workers, teachers and aides, push up thermostats and cancel field trips.

Now, after years of budgetary triage, Florida districts are calculating how to avoid major harm to their schools. Many face painful options.

Broward County schools may lay off teachers. Seminole is closing an elementary school and say more could follow. Duval County may reduce art, music and physical education offerings. And Lake County is considering a four-day week.

The "grim reality," says Seminole Superintendent Bill Vogel, is that things will be worse a year from now when the last of the federal subsidies, which have been shoring up Florida school budgets since 2009, run out.

The Orange County school district, the largest in Central Florida, had its budget bolstered by a local property tax voters approved in November. Otherwise, it would be cutting more than $80 million this coming fiscal year, the equivalent of more than 1,300 teachers, on top of the cuts made in the past few years.

"We would be talking about dramatic program adjustments," said Rick Collins, Orange's chief financial officer.

He said that districts without extra local money face bleak choices for the 2011-12 school year.

"They're not crying wolf at all," he said.

At Lake Howell, administrators dealt with earlier cuts by eliminating many elective classes. The school also reduced staff in media, technology and guidance departments. It can now take weeks for a student to see a counselor.

The school also chopped spending on supplies such as copy paper, and on bus transportation for its band and sports teams. Its floors need to be refurbished, its walls painted, and its air conditioning and electrical systems updated. But those projects are on hold.

Seminole is trying to close a $20 million deficit for the coming year and absorb what amounts to a blow of nearly $83 million over five years.

"I think we're down to bare bones. I'm actually relieved that I'm retiring. You can only juggle so many things," said Storch, who is ending a 38-year Florida education career next month.

The Republican-led Legislature said it passed an "austere" budget to deal with a nearly $4 billion revenue shortfall while not raising taxes.

"While many states and the federal government are floundering under crushing deficit spending, we kept our promise that we would not raise taxes or fees during these difficult economic times," Senate President Mike Haridopolos announced after a budget conference.

The budget cuts would have been deeper but lawmakers relaxed costly rules that capped class sizes.

They're also forcing school employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries toward retirement. With teachers and other employees now picking up that expense, legislators said they could give less money to school districts.

Per-pupil funding is now about $1,038 less than it was at the start of the 2007-08 school year, just before the spending downturn began.

This year's budget cuts will further erode school quality, said Christine Bramuchi of Fund Education Now, an Orlando-based advocacy group suing the state over what it calls inadequate education funding.

"The school boards and superintendents have tried, for the most part, as a group, to shield students from harm," Bramuchi said. "The rubber is hitting the road now."

With this coming year's cut, the Osceola County school district will be down $53 million since 2007.

Lake, down more than $33 million compared to 2007, may open schools only four days a week and cut teaching assistants, pay for coaches and some bus services to cover a $10 million shortfall for next year.

"This is the largest cut ever both in percentage and dollars since the Great Depression," said Margaret Smith, superintendent of Volusia County schools. "That speaks volumes about the challenges we face."

Volusia has slashed $110 million from its budget over a five-year period, deleting almost 1,500 positions, closing several small elementary schools and eliminating ninth-grade sports.

Superintendent Vogel carts around a four-by-six-foot chart detailing the decline of funding in Seminole. It's a visual aid he uses to drive home this point: His district must cut $45.3 million this year for a total of more than $82 million since 2007.

The district previously eliminated more than 400 jobs and plans to whack 200 more. It also closed an alternative high school and scaled back summer school offerings.

Angst over budget cuts peaked last week when the school board voted — despite parent and community protests — to shut down Longwood Elementary to save an estimated $1.1 million annually.

Statewide, "massive" budget cuts will lead to layoffs and more limited course offerings, said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

Those cuts could whittle away at the academic achievements Florida's schools have made in the last decade, Ford added. "I don't see how it's going to be able to continue the progress."

Erica Rodriguez of the Sentinel staff contributed to this story. or 407-420-5273. or 407-883-7885.,0,6118058,full.story

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