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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Palm Beach County to start laying off teachers

From the Palm Beach Post

by Kevin Thompson

Under Gov. Rick Scott's budget proposal, the Palm Beach County School District could face employee layoffs and lose up to $134 million in funding from its $2.5 billion operating budget.

"This is the most dire forecast I've seen for any Florida school district," said Mike Burke, the district's chief financial officer. "It's a challenge."

The district is also looking at a loss of about $100 million in federal stimulus money.

So far, the district has managed to avoid teacher layoffs, but that could change if Scott's budget is passed, Burke warned.

"The Governor's budget proposal would necessitate a reduction in our workforce," Burke said. "In the last couple of years, we've benefitted from the federal stimulus money that's allowed us to save a lot of jobs and helped mitigate the impact of the recession."

In Scott's $65.9 billion plan, which the governor unveiled Monday, education would take the biggest hit, with $3.3 billion cut. Per-student spending of $6,844 statewide would be cut by $703. In Palm Beach County, the proposed reduction would be even greater, where per-student spending would drop from $7,213 to $6,390, a cut of about 11.4 percent. Martin County would see a cut of about 8.8 percent and St. Lucie about 10 percent.

But Burke said it's still "too early" in the budget process to estimate the number of potential layoffs.

Robert Dow, the county teachers' union President said cuts in classroom spending would have a significant impact on the school district. "We've been talking about building up the education system," said Dow. "This (proposal) cuts its legs off."

The proposal will also make it tougher for the district to comply with the state's class-size law.

About 21 percent of the county's class periods were over the state's enrollment caps for core classes.

At tonight's school board meeting at Okeeheelee Middle, the district is scheduled to present its class-size reduction proposal to the school board. The district is required to submit a compliance plan to the state by Feb. 15 to avoid a $16 million penalty. If submitted by the deadline, the penalty will be reduced to about $4 million.

Scott's budget and the class-size issue will put more of a strain on teachers.

Sophia Youngberg, a teacher at Citrus Cover Elementary in Boynton Beach, said she gets only $100 a year for school supplies.

"How far do you think $100 can go?" Youngberg asks. "Not far."

Youngberg said she spends close to $3,000 of her own money to pay for notebooks, pens, pencils and erasers for her fifth-grade students. She's even paid for field trips and yearbooks for some kids.

Now Youngberg is afraid she'll have to shell out even more of her own money if Scott's proposal is passed.

"Teachers are already feeling so beaten down," Youngberg said. "I don't know how much more we can do with that much less."

Jen Brown, an English teacher at Palm Beach Central High School in Wellington, said she fears Scott's cuts will drive good teachers away and hurt the state's chances of attracting new ones.

"Why would anyone want to teach in Florida when the career has been treated in such a demeaning fashion?" Brown asked.

Dow said the cuts could force schools to hire more adjunct teachers - mostly retired teachers and college professors - who are paid at an hourly wage and who would have no benefits and could be dismissed with 72 hours notice.

Catherine Martinez, an art teacher at Pahokee Middle, said schools in the poorer western communities would be hurt severely.

"The budget cuts are going to affect us a lot more," Martinez said. "Our average income out here is about $29,000-a-year, so the budget is very important to us."

Burke said it will cost the district between $30-$60 million to comply with the class-size law, which adds more financial pressure.

If the district hired 900 new teachers, that would cost the district $60 million, Burke said. That figure could be cut in half if the district combined classes and got teachers to take on an additional instruction period, Burke said.

Although the county had the third-highest percentage of classes out of compliance, it had the highest sheer number of classes over the limit statewide, with 21,246 class periods out of compliance.

Burke said the average number of students for those classes which were out of compliance was three. Under the law, core classes such as English and math are capped at 18 students in pre-kindergarten through third-grade classes; at 22 in fourth to eighth grades; and at 25 in high school.

Burke said 166 county schools were out of compliance. As requested by the Florida Department of Education, the district gave the principals of those schools class-size reduction compliance plan forms to fill out.

The principals checked off the strategies they favored. Some of those strategies included combining classes of gifted and high-performing students, encouraging virtual courses and adding a teacher instructional period.

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