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Schools staring at a 'Grand Canyon' of cuts in funding

After looming in the offing for two years, a long-expected education funding cliff is about to hit Florida.

School district officials are bracing for major cuts on top of cuts they've already made thanks to shrinking local revenue, declining state resources and the loss of federal stimulus funds.

Potentially making matters even worse: Gov. Rick Scott's proposal to slash school funding by even more. School leaders have pinned their hopes on lawmakers being more friendly to schools than Scott.

"In past years, the governor usually had a pie-in-the-sky budget and the legislators brought it down to realism," said Fred Matz, chief financial officer for Pinellas schools. "This year the opposite is true. We feel the legislators will pass a better budget, more realistic."

Still, it's not a matter of whether districts will have to cut spending. Rather, it's a matter of scope.

The outcome will determine whether the Pinellas County School District will have to cut $36 million or $86 million, whether Pasco would need to slash $46 million or $60 million.

Hernando schools face cuts upward of $21 million, while Hillsborough, the nation's eighth-largest district, is looking at reductions of more than $100 million.

"The funding cliff we're on is huge," bemoaned Pasco school superintendent Heather Fiorentino. "It's more like the Grand Canyon."

Even the best-case scenarios aren't pretty.

The general expectation is that lawmakers will cut education funding by about 5 percent for 2011-12, and that's after several years of reductions in actual funding (as opposed to paper projections).

And no one in Tallahassee has announced a plan to restore lost stimulus funds with state revenue, which the stimulus replaced two years ago. School districts used that $1.3 billion in federal funds over those two years to prevent layoffs and keep pay rates stable as many in the private sector endured furloughs, pay cuts and job losses.

Lawmakers have sent signals that they aren't supportive of Scott's 10 percent cut to per-student funding. The latest report from the National Education Association ranks Florida 46th nationally in that category, and no one wants to sink lower on the list.

"We need a budget that is lean but not mean," said Rep. John Legg, speaker pro tem of the Florida House.

House education budget chief Marti Coley, a longtime teacher, has said that keeping per-student funding as close to 2010 levels as possible is her top priority. Her Senate counterpart, David Simmons, suggested that his committee will look for other ways to cut education spending than in the classroom.

But cutting of some sort is certain, Simmons and Coley agreed, as the state faces a $4.6 billion revenue shortfall in a budget where education takes up a major portion of the cash.

"We know the amount of funding is going to go down this coming year because of a very brutal budget," Simmons said. "We also know that we are looking for cost savings that will offset the decline in spending."

The governor's budget, Coley stressed, is simply a proposal, a starting point for discussions. And to paraphrase Reagan-era U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Legg said, the governor proposes, the Legislature disposes.

Many school districts are waiting before embarking on cuts, hoping the hacking they will have to do won't be as severe as Scott proposes.

"We've learned from the past, we have to wait for the session to start rolling," said Gretchen Saunders, chief financial officer for Hillsborough schools. "Everybody is worried now, and we don't know what it's going to look like."

One figure that's fairly stable among all districts, though, is the percentage of general operating money that goes into salaries and benefits. It's about 85 percent. And it means that choices that district officials have attempted to avoid will have to be made.

"We are down absolutely to the point where if we have to make those beef cuts, there will be no option other than layoffs of some employees, pay cuts for probably all employees, possibly program cuts," Pasco School Board vice chairman Allen Altman said. "They are all very real possibilities. There's not an item that we won't consider."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/schools.

Schools staring at a 'Grand Canyon' of cuts in funding 03/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 8:04pm]
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