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School district now predicts $30 million budget shortfall; $3.8M staff reduction suggested

By Staff | Mar 26, 2008

The Lee County School District’s expected budget reduction has been dipping even lower each week as it continues a drawn out guessing game with the state Legislature.

At the end of a February meeting, the superintendent said there was a $10 million shortfall for the county. Last week, at a workshop discussing the board auditor position, that number inflated to $17 million.

At the school board’s briefing meeting last night, officials announced that the shortfall was now between $26 million and $30 million.

Superintendent James Browder, who explained that there has already been a series of personnel cuts with more anticipated in the future, said the district’s original budget projections were too conservative when compared to others around the state.

The district has been calculating its projections using the governor’s budget, since the House and Senate have yet to make a final decision regarding cuts in education.

Last week’s $17 million shortfall estimate came when officials projected 5 percent under the governor’s budget with 3 percent taxes. But that number turned out to be too conservative.

“What I started doing was to look at articles from around the state and I saw that districts with 50,000 students were cutting up to $30 million,” Browder said.

Since Lee County currently enrolls more than 80,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, officials decided to apply a 5 percent reduction in all areas of the district, which moves the deficit to $26 million.

Browder said Tuesday night that the district is going to try to work with a $30 million deficit to be a buffer in case more or less money comes from the Legislature.

“We are preparing a budget on $26 million, but even if we get more than that I don’t know if we can operate anywhere close to where we are supposed to,” said Browder.

Tuesday night the district released suggested nonpersonnel reductions, but it was unable to quantify the total number of staff who could lose their job by the time the Legislature decides on a budget.

Some of the nonpersonnel reductions include a $112,500 cut in transportation department overtime hours, $24,000 reduction in the support of the Education Foundation, $1 million reduction in cell tower rentals for broadband and $100,000 reduction in school field trips with very few exceptions.

The district did suggest that the personnel reductions would total approximately $3.8 million. If, for example, that amount is used to eliminate teacher positions with an average of $40,000 in salary, it would result in 95 personnel cuts and almost double that for paraprofessionals.

But, even these numbers are subject to change.

Browder made it clear Tuesday that he would hold off on cutting positions or programs in the schools as long as possible.

“I am going to stay out of schools as long as I can, but every time you cut something goes with it,” he said.

Board members agreed that the district should create a communication where the superintendent addresses teachers and the community on the budget reduction issue.

Each of the board members also stressed that residents begin contacting their legislators to ensure that education in Lee County gets the necessary amount of funding and to ensure cuts do not affect children in the classroom.

The board also decided Tuesday to:

— Piggyback a bid with the Sarasota County School District to award security system installation, repair and parts to multiple vendors by $400,000 and a total annual expenditure of $900,000.

— Renew microbial remediation to American Management Resource Corporation, FreshAire Solutions of SWFL and Percon Abatement Inc. through April 2, 2009, at an estimated annual expenditure of $1.5 million.

— Provide Telecommunication Conexxions of Florida Inc. for the period of March 26, 2008, to March 25, 2009 at an estimated annual expenditure of $3 million.

— Approve an interlocal agreement for school concurrency with the town of Fort Myers Beach to comply with Florida statutes.