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Estimated budget cuts bring Crist’s words to forefront; District, others expecting Florida to follow through

By Staff | Apr 1, 2008

As the Lee County School District continues to face unprecedented budget cuts and the increasing likelihood that hundreds of staff will lose their jobs, school officials demand that the state live up to the promises it has made to education.

The district has been struggling for weeks to determine what or who will need to be cut. On the other hand, the state Legislature has not been able to give the district a concrete number and many officials fear that this number will come in at the last minute on May 1.

So far, the House budget indicates a $30 million deficit for the next school year. On the other hand, if the governor’s proposed budget is passed, it would allow the district to break even, explained Ami Desamours, the district’s budget director.

Lee County School Board Member Steven Teuber, also the board’s liaison to the finance advisory committee, said the district needs to rally around the governor’s proposed budget.

“The governor came out with a budget that won’t harm education,” said Teuber. “My challenge for the governor is to veto anything that doesn’t meet our expectations.”

According to Desamours, there have been some projections for the proposed Senate budget that show more significant deficits than the House counterpart.

A memorandum sent to the school board on March 28 stated that there are more than 70 positions being eliminated totaling $4.4 million. With the nonpersonnel and personnel cuts being proposed, the district would be cutting a total of $8.2 million.

In the memo, sent by Superintendent James Browder to the school board, Browder said, “I am fearful that the reductions in next year’s funding could go deeper than the $26 to $30 million we are currently anticipating.”

Positions being cut include department directors, secretaries, technicians and other maintenance specialists, but some cuts are being made to positions that could potentially affect the classroom — helping teachers, resource teachers, bus monitors and custodians.

The district is facing more criticism after it was discovered that six professionals were contracted from India to assist with the district’s recent computer upgrades instead of local candidates. The district contracted Oracle-PeopleSoft — an international software company — for $34 million to revamp some its computer systems. Oracle-PeopleSoft outsourced the job to professionals outside of the United States.

While the district has no direct control over labor that an outside agency chooses to use, some have asked why the district did not explicitly ask for local consultants to be used in the contract.

“I am concerned about the perception and morale of our employees,” said Board Member Robert Chilmonik.

Mark Castellano, president of the Teacher’s Association of Lee County, is leading a campaign against the state demanding that it be held accountable for what it promised.

“We are standing on what the governor promised, to hold education harmless,” said Castellano.

While the district has anticipated staff reductions numbering in the hundreds, Castellano said that many of the recent cuts include support personnel positions.

Some teacher positions have been lost, he said, but that is more directly contributed to declining enrollment throughout the district. Of course, if the the district has to work with a $30 million deficit or more, teacher positions will be cut.

Browder said at Tuesday’s school board briefing meeting that he would keep the cuts out of schools as long as possible. According to Castellano, the district has been forthright in trying to cut positions downtown before considering teachers or paraprofessionals.

“The district is trying to do the best they can,” said Castellano. “But, we want to keep the focus on the state.”

If the district cannot hold the line against cutting classroom positions, the eliminations would begin with those teachers who hold annual contracts, and not with those teachers who have been with the district for more than three years and hold a professional certification.

According to Castellano, the district would have an obligation to find a position for those teachers who hold their professional certification or are tenured.