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Date of Issue: February 18, 2009

Schools face $20 million shortfall

The news wasn’t good for Island parents and community members in attendance at an information session hosted by the Manatee County School District Thursday, Feb. 12, in the Anna Maria Elementary School auditorium.

Ron Russell, district director of the exceptional students education department, delivered the message that the district already has incurred a $6.4 million cut in the current budget and, that “for the 2009-2010 school year, the picture looks even bleaker as [the district] faces a $20 million shortfall.”

Russell provided highlights of information on the budget, which are available on the MCSD Web site. He encouraged citizens to access the information online in order to stay informed. Russell said district Superintendent Tim McGonegal is seeking transparency in this process and welcomes citizen input.

Among the items Russell noted were some misconceptions in how the district can use funds. For example, the MCSD anticipates receiving $26 million from the proposed federal government stimulus package, however, that money is earmarked for Title 1 schools and for students with disabilities.

“There is a misconception that the stimulus package will solve our financial problems,” Russell said. ‘We can use the money and it will help, but it doesn’t flow into the general fund budget. It’s nice to get, but it’s not going to solve the problem.”

Another misconception, he said, is that Florida statutes do not allow school districts the flexibility to transfer revenue in their budgets. For example, districts are prohibited from transferring money from the capital projects fund, monies allocated for building maintenance, equipment and transportation, to the general fund, which is money allocated for materials, supplies, salaries, where the impact of the shortfall will be felt.

Russell said the district is challenged to absorb the deficit with the least impact to students. He pointed out that even without the budget cuts, Florida schools provide one of the lowest base student allocation rates in the nation, with schools already under funded. He said the Florida government only provides $4,000 per student to each school, while in other states the average base rate is $8,000-$10,000.

Russell did not provide insight into what measures may be taken to meet the deficit. However, a brainstorm list of possibilities, compiled by district employees and community members, was provided. Some suggestions on the list include eliminating media specialists at elementary schools, eliminating middle school sports and using long-term substitutes instead of new hires, and more. The full list is available online.

One hot topic on the brainstorm list for those at the school meeting was the suggestion of closing an elementary school, with several people fearing the closure of AME.

AME Principal Tom Levengood assured parents that would be unlikely. “We are a successful school, all our classrooms are full, we’re an ‘A’ school and we have a very active, supportive community, “ he said.

Some people offered suggestions, the first being that the school district be more accountable for its spending. Ron Mauer of Holmes Beach questioned the superintendent’s $170,000 salary. “He isn’t running a corporation and he isn’t turning a profit,” he said.

Others questioned the inability of the school district to borrow funds from another revenue base, such as its capital fund, even as a short-term solution.

And some parents sought assurance that Levengood would have a voice in how the Island school weathers the shortfall as it trickles down to the school.

Holmes Beach Commissioner David Zaccagnino called for schools to be funded based on the percentage of tax revenue it provides. “Aren’t we your best customer in the county?” he asked. “Why upset your best customer?” He said spending should be based on how much we give.

Russell urged those concerned to not just share their thoughts with McGonegal and district board members, but with legislative leaders in Tallahassee.

Three key changes that could make a large impact in boosting funds, according to Russell, are to seek a change in state statutes to allow flexibility between budgets, increase the base student allocation and to seek increased taxes on cigarettes, similar to other states.

More details regarding the educational budget crisis are available, and continually updated, online at www.manateeschools.net. Click on “ 2009 Budget Cuts.”

“We are not whining,” said Russell. “We want to make our stakeholders aware. State revenues are down, but the school business is not down. We do have lobbyists working on this, and the Manatee County Education Association is planning a trip to Tallahassee, but your voice is stronger than ours. They listen to parents.”

A contact list for Florida legislative representatives is on the district Web site.

Sidebar (maybe even if we just put it on the Islander web site?)

Florida legislative leadership contact information:

President of the Senate, Jeff Atwater

Atwater.jeff.web@flsenate.gov

Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Ray Sansom

ray.sansom@myfloridahouse.gov

Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Committee Chair, Stephen Wise

Wise.stephen.web@flsenate.gov

Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Committee Vice Chair, Gary Siplin

Siplin.gary.web@flsenate.gov

Senate PreK-12 Policy Committee Chair, Nancy Detert

Detert.nancy.web@flsenate.gov

Senate PreK-12 Policy Committee Vice Chair, Frederica Wilson

Wilson.frederica.web@flsenate.gov

Florida House of Representatives PreK-12 Appropriations and Policy Committee, Anitere Flores

Anitere.flores@myfloridahouse.gov

Florida House of Representatives PreK-12 Appropriations and Policy Committee, John Legg

John.legg@myfloridahouse.gov

Senator Mike Bennett

Bennett.michael.web@flsenate.gov

Senator Arthenia Joyner

Joyner.arthenia.web@flsenate.gov

Representative Ron Reagan

Ron.Reagan@myfloridahouse.gov

Representative Bill Galvano

Bill.Galvano@myfloridahouse.gov

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