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Browder outlines challenges ahead for school district

By Staff | May 31, 2008

As if speaking at the popular “Cheeseburger in Paradise” restaurant chains, Superintendent James Browder presented local business leaders, elected officials and Lee County School District employees with a report on the state of the district.

The 17th annual State Of Our Schools was held early Friday morning at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre. It featured Browder, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt with a lei and sunglasses, addressing how the district was surpassing others across the state and country with its innovative programs. He also touched on challenges posed by the fiscally tight road ahead.

Browder explained to the capacity audience that three specific factors would challenge the school district in the next five years — a struggling economy termed by Browder as “The Perfect Economic Storm,” shifting student populations, and budget cuts.

“A number of cannonballs have been fired in our direction,” said Browder. “There is trouble in paradise and we will have to change our latitudes and attitudes.”

Overall, the school district has 107 schools. It is the largest district in Florida and is within the top 50 in the United States. While they projected more than 80,000 students this year, he said, many students decided to leave the district before the end of the year.

“For the first time ever we had fewer students at the end of the year than the beginning,” Browder said.

The district will have to recalculate its projections, but could see growth over the next two years between 5,000 and 20,000 new students. Of these students, 54 percent received a free or reduced lunch — which Browder said indicates the tough economic times the area faces.

The 2007/2008 budget is one of the district’s most pressing challenges with struggling to balance the books in light of projected budget reductions from the Florida Legislature. Present at the meeting were Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers and Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, who were able to hear firsthand the results of what the district is calling budget shortfalls.

The school district’s budget is $1.66 billion overall, and they have already cut $20 million from the budget which amounted to 154 non-classroom positions. On top of that amount there is an additional $29 million shortfall, Browder said. They’ve also limited field trips, reduced staff overtime and raised thermostats in buildings all over the county.

And effects of rising costs can be seen in areas such as food service. For instance, more than 6 million chocolate milk half-pint containers are purchased by the district to help serve more than 12,000 breakfasts and 40,000 lunches. And, Browder said, the cost of milk recently increased by 4.5 cents, increasing the price of milk by thousands.

Browder and the school board has repeatedly said that they would avoid cuts in the classrooms at all costs.

“We are committed to keeping the reductions as far from the classroom as possible,” said Browder.

Recently there was a motion before the school board that would provide flexibility for the district to transfer funds from their capital outlay account used for construction projects, to the operational costs used for teacher salaries and other costs. It was brought to the board by Boardmember Robert Chilmonik.

Browder reiterated his position of not supporting such an initiative because he said it would disrupt the capital plan and potentially leave new students to the county without a classroom. So far, 23 new schools have been built in the last six years, and on top of that 17 additions have been made to existing schools.

“It sounds like an easy fix on the surface, but when I look at the details it is much more complicated,” he said.

Marshall Bower, the executive director of The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools, outlined a program that certified Lee County students to be Microsoft system administrators. More than 830 students have earned the certification at Dunbar High over the last four years.

Although, while the district is training hundreds of certified computer system administrators to live and work in Lee County, they defended a decision earlier in the year to use out-sourced workers to complete the district’s over $30 million computer overhaul.

Besides the successful Microsoft certification program, the district also mentioned the highly popular Dancing Classrooms where students learn to ballroom dance, and Career Days at each of the comprehensive high schools including Ida S. Baker where more than 5,000 eighth grade students learned about career options.

Also, Diplomat Middle in the Cape has been recognized as a music demonstration school and the district was nationally recognized and accredited by AdvancED as a quality school system.

While there was serious discussion of the state of the school district, Browder said “not all is doom and gloom,” and lightheartedly came back to the “Education in Paradise” theme and pointed out that he has hosted six of the 17 annual presentations.

“We tried to get the real Jimmy to come today, but he couldn’t make it, so you get me, Jimmy Browder,” he said. “And I just don’t know what the papers will say about Marshall putting a lei on my neck.”