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Lee school officials standing by decision to not transfer funds; Collier County one district to OK proposal to help ease budget woes

By Staff | May 21, 2008

For the last few months school districts across the state have been feeling the sting of the Legislature turning its back on funding public education.

But the school board in Collier County recently decided to employ a new idea that may help it through the budget crunch by setting a referendum that will give it the flexibility to transfer money between district accounts.

The plan adopted by the Collier County School District is the same proposal that died on the floor during a Monday night meeting of the Lee County School Board.

But Collier’s decision to utilize the plan will not sway the local board’s decision.

“They are two different animals,” said Lee County School Superintendent James Browder. “The fact that Collier is doing it doesn’t do anything for me.”

He explained that the two districts are very different. Collier has 40,000 students less than Lee County and generates less money, he said.

“They might be able to do that and not negatively impact their five- to 10-year plan,” said Browder.

Local district spokesperson Joe Donzelli said the district cannot make its decisions based upon what others are doing.

“We don’t do what we do in Lee County because someone else is doing the same thing. You have to do what is in the best interest of your citizens, school district and students,” said Donzelli.

He said the Lee County School District has programs that others do not have, and it gives up much of its funding through the state’s district cost differential — a program that collects from school districts all over Florida and redistributes a share of the funds to smaller counties.

The district cost differential is part of the reason why the state recently took $22 million out of the local district’s capital account and only gave back $15 million, he said.

“We want home rule flexibility. We don’t want to take money out of capital, filter it through the state and get back only a portion,” said Donzelli.

The Lee School Board was given the idea in April by Raymond Rodrigues, a budget manager for Florida Gulf Coast University, as a way to deal with the budget shortfalls.

Referendums for flexibility had been passed in Walton County in 2003 and Monroe County in 2004, he said. They called for the reallocation of some of the property taxes from capital funds to operating funds to cover the deficits.

The issue was put to a referendum in these two counties where voters approved to increase the ad valorem millage per year by 0.50 over a four-year period. This is money put into a school district’s operations account.

Rodrigues stressed that it is not a tax increase because the school district would simultaneously decrease taxes collected for the capital account.

Looking at what the school district collected from taxes, it could receive an additional $45 million for operational costs to cover teacher salaries, positions, educational programs and other day-to-day activities.

The district is currently expecting a budget shortfall of $29 million.

“With budget cuts occurring now and projections for further cuts next year, now is the time to take proactive steps to prepare,” said Rodrigues in his statement to the school board.

If the district decides to implement the option, it would have to make a decision soon to be able to notify the Lee County Supervisor of Elections by July 1 to have the referendum placed on the ballot.

School board member Robert Chilmonik brought the referendum to a motion on Monday, but it failed to get support from the rest of the board.

Browder said he would oppose such an option because it would take funds from the capital account, used for building new schools and making renovations to existing ones. He said it would be “fiscally irresponsible” to take money out of the capital account because it may disrupt the district’s future capital plans.

He recommended that the district wait and see how the general revenue turns out later this summer. The board has many items in its capital plan, including renovations to Mariner High and Cape Coral High that would remove the schools’ 40 to 50 portable classrooms, he said.

But Browder does not deny that the district is in dire need.

“This is going to change the face of public education in Florida,” he said.

Proponents of the referendum say that the district is expecting less students than ever next year, and the district could afford putting off some of its capital projects.

Across the county, middle schools lost a total of 480 students and high schools lost 1,704 students between September and May.