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Schools struggle to make cuts

TALLAHASSEE — No more field trips. Smaller summer school and sports programs. Fewer art and music teachers. Pricier school lunches. Less busing for students in magnet and choice programs.

This is the reality of the state spending $100 or so less per student.

School officials in the Tampa Bay area and across Florida are considering painful cuts as lawmakers prepare next year's lean budget, with per-student funding dropping for the first time in three decades — by $85 to $115 for every child from elementary to high school.

Powerful Republican lawmakers say the proposed cuts are their best attempt at "holding education harmless" in the midst of a $3.2-billion general revenue shortfall that many predict will only get worse. They point out that the total education cuts, less than 2 percent, are not nearly as bad as what other areas like health care face.

"We have to balance the budget, and we cannot spend money we don't have," said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, the House's point man on education. "If public education absorbed its proportionate share of general revenue cuts, it would have been far worse."

The House proposal would reduce per-student funding from $4,079.74 to $3,965.25. The Senate would cut it to $3,913 per student.

Schools make choices

School lobbyists are mostly resigned to the cuts, and they appreciate that lawmakers aren't specifying how school districts cope with their smaller pots of money.

"They're giving us what we asked for — flexibility," said Connie Milito, lobbyist for Hillsborough County schools, which would lose between $14-million and $19-million next year under the chambers' proposals.

But Democrats say the Legislature needs to do more to protect public schools. Cutting $100 or so per student sounds harmless enough on paper, they say, but multiply that by tens of thousands of students in a school district, and the effects can be dramatic.

"Will any of these cuts singularly destroy the system? Probably not, but cumulatively they have a destructive impact," said House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "Not everyone goes to summer school, but it's important to the kids that do."

He and other Democrats have been pushing, to no avail in the Republican-led Legislature for changes that might generate more money for education, such as closing corporate tax loopholes.

"The last thing they're going to cut is the corporate tax loopholes, but that's the first thing they should look at so that we don't have to cut summer school and after school programs and school resource officers," Gelber said.

Summer school cutbacks are among the cost-saving measures being considered by school districts, including Miami-Dade and Orange counties.

Staff, busing cuts

Last month, Hillsborough school administrators identified more than two dozen possible ways to cut expenses — from trimming guidance-related services like career specialists to library staffing levels.

Officials even pondered using more video conferencing to cut travel costs, though they haven't made any final decisions.

"The least thing we want to impact is students," said deputy superintendent Ken Otero.

But Hillsborough is considering limits on school busing and putting as many students into elective classes as possible.

The Pinellas County School District is bracing for a reduction in funding in the $22.5-million to $26-million range, which takes into account declining student enrollment. And that's not including $15-million in lost revenue from two cuts during the current fiscal year.

Pinellas officials are waiting until they have final budget numbers to ponder where to cut.

But preliminary budget models contemplate no teacher raises over the next two years. Going into the new budget year, district officials estimate they will need to find $13-million in cost savings on top of the latest pending state cuts just to keep salaries at current levels.

"We want to work with you, but there will have to be some changes made," School Board member Mary Brown said at Tuesday's board meeting in a comment directed at teachers and union officials. "The money will not be there."

Pickens, whose wife is a teacher, said he does not relish cutting money from schools.

"Nobody's suggesting from the Republican Party that an $85 reduction isn't real," Pickens said. "But we had to come to grips that that's the best we could do."

Times staff writers Letitia Stein, Thomas C. Tobin and Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

. fast facts

State budget cuts

School districts across the state are considering a number of cost-saving measures to deal with tens of millions in state budget cuts next year. A sampling:

Hillsborough: Limit busing; make elective classes larger; review library staffing and school nursing services; cut travel costs; re-evaluate athletic ticket prices and whether only varsity athletes should attend out-of-county events.

Miami-Dade: Eliminate field trips; reduce summer school, sports and afterschool programs; reduce school police and security.

Orange: Cut guidance counselors, library staff and art, music and P.E. teachers; make "adjustments" to middle school athletics, summer school and alternative education.

Manatee: Reduce reading coaches; eliminate field trips; cut middle school sports and summer school programs; close one school.

Schools struggle to make cuts 04/16/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 20, 2008 12:11pm]
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