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School board slow to back proposal to shift funds around; Browder to look into it

By Staff | May 20, 2008

In April the Lee County School Board was presented with an idea that may have solved some of its economic woes by shifting funds from the construction-oriented capital account to the district’s day-to-day operating account.

The proposal was made into a motion by School Board Member Robert Chilmonik at a special board meeting Monday night, but did not receive support from the rest of the board.

Raymond Rodriguez, the budget manager at Florida Gulf Coast University, suggested last month that the district add a referendum to August’s ballot that could make capital funds more flexible. While the district is expecting $28.8 million less next year from the state, it has more than $600 million in its capital account.

Although Florida law strictly prohibits funds to be transferred between accounts, Rodriguez proposed that the district add a referendum to the ballot that would allow this to happen.

His proposal would decrease taxes for the capital account and, simultaneously, increase them for the operations account — an even transfer, according to the supporters of the referendum.

Rodriguez explained that a similar measure had been put into effect in Monroe and Walton counties. He said there would have to be a level of trust between the public and the school district in order for the plan to work.

A referendum is needed to increase the taxes for the operational account, but the school board is the only one that can decrease taxes for the capital account.

He believes that the district’s lower enrollment is the result of the slowing economy, and therefore the flexibility with the accounts would be temporary until the economy bounced back.

“I don’t doubt in the future we will need more schools, but if we have enough schools for the next two years this should get us through the immediate budget crunch,” said Rodriguez.

Chilmonik is strongly in favor of the option, pointing out that a similar plan was put in place in other counties across the state.

“This is a long-term program, and it is not a tax increase,” he said. “But it gives the superintendent flexibility.”

At the last school board meeting Superintendent James Browder said he would oppose the proposal because it is short-sighted and imprudent at this time. He explained that the district would face building shortages if they adopted the option.

On Monday, Browder reiterated his argument against such a referendum, saying that taking money from the capital account would leave the district with less seats to satisfy the class size amendment and less money to make additions or renovations to other schools.

The district is expecting 2,600 new students next year, although some say it may be less. During this school year the district lost more than 1,700 students mid-year, which has never happened before.

Because of expected new students, as well as the class size requirements set by the state, Browder said Monday that he could not support such a referendum at this time.

“It would be fiscally irresponsible for us to take any money out before we see what happens with the general revenue in the state,” said Browder.

In the meantime, he said, the district will need between 425 to 500 classrooms to satisfy class size requirements — 18 for elementary, 22 for middle school and 25 for high school. That is the equivalent of three to five schools.

Chilmonik, on the other hand, said the district needs to act now before it allows what happened this year to happen again.

“Right now there hasn’t been a plan out there other than to cut,” he said.

Additional money in operations would help with school programs, teacher salaries and other everyday operations throughout the district.

But the question is whether shifting funds from one account to another will disrupt the district’s construction plans for new students.

Browder said he had recently talked to Rodriguez and that during their conversation he found that Rodriguez had not figured in the requirements for the class size amendment. Furthermore, Browder said, the two counties who have held similar referendums are not similar to Lee County. Munroe, he said, spends three times more per student than Lee County and Walton does not compare in size.

“Doing this as a knee jerk reaction can be damaging to our capital plan,” Browder said.

The superintendent will research the issue and come to the board with a recommendation by June 3, but not one that will most likely include a flexibility referendum.