BOE: Budget cuts threaten progress
Sometimes, it's who bears the bad news that matters.
Members of the state Board of Education aired concerns about education cuts today, fearful that continued budget woes could undermine the progress Florida students are making in academics.
School boards and superintendents, of course, have been ringing alarms for months. But today's clanging was different: Nobody can accuse the 7-member Board of Education of being a pack of tax-and-spend liberals. Five members were appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush and one, Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa, served as Bush's chief of staff.
"I'm very concerned about the loss of financial support," board member Roberto Martinez, who also has close ties to Bush, said at today's meeting in Tampa. "I think this board has a responsibility … to be more vocal, starting today. This board has an obligation to use our bully pulpit."
Per-pupil spending in Florida – already among the lowest in the nation – has dropped 4.22 percent since budget cuts began in October, according to Department of Education figures. And the near future does not look bright: Economic forecasters don't project revenues to return to 2007-2008 levels until the 2010-2011 fiscal year. And now districts have higher utility bills and gas prices to wrestle with too.
Just last week, Gov. Charlie Crist ordered all state agencies, including the DOE, to cut spending by 4 percent in the coming fiscal year.
"People need to understand that the costs and the cuts are real funds in the classroom," said Shanahan. She suggested DOE lead a campaign to inform people about both the gains Florida students have made – and the cuts she said could erode them.
Districts are laying off employees, freezing teacher pay and turning up thermostats. The cuts have even sliced into programs tied to Bush's accountability regimen, including a reduction in school reward money and elimination of a standardized test used to gauge Florida's progress against the national average.
In some districts, even reading coaches are on the chopping block. "They're having to make tough choices of, "Can we keep as many?' " K-12 Chancellor Frances Haithcock told the board.
Only Akshay Desai of St. Petersburg offered a counterpoint to his fellow members: "I wanted to take a slightly different take on this doom and gloom," said Desai, a Crist appointee. "Like the Chinese say, a crisis or challenge is an opportunity."
Desai said the cuts afforded districts a chance to become more efficient.
- Ron Matus, state education reporter