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School District budget hearing set

By Staff | Sep 6, 2008

The Lee County School Board will decide on Tuesday whether to approve the 2008-2009 Final Budget, an immense document outlining appropriations throughout the school district totaling $1.55 billion.

By law the school district needs to pass a balanced budget and board members approved the tentative budget last month 4-1.

The budget under consideration is five percent less than the year before due to a number of economic circumstances that sent the school district in a tailspin — a $29 million budget shortfall resulting from lower local commerce, declining student growth in Lee County, the passage of Amendment 1 and the real estate crisis.

Superintendent James Browder outlined in a memorandum to the board that a number of changes were made to the tentative budget before its finalized on Tuesday, including a $10 million increase from $1.54 billion.

“Several significant changes took place in the budget from the approval of the tentative budget,” said Browder.

He reported that reserves in all funds were finalized and general fund reserves decreased by $40 million. Also, Browder said the district recognized $21 million in additional revenue from the federal government — funding that is Title I or ESE related.

While Browder said the district tried to absorb this year’s shortfalls, he added that further cuts will most likely occur.

“A continued decrease in school district revenues, combined with the effects of class size, leave the district with no alternative but to further cut the level of services now offered to our schools and students,” said Browder.

School districts across the state receive their funding from the Florida Education Finance Program, a state program that collects funding from school systems across the state and doles out a certain amount to all 67 districts based on student enrollment and need. This year’s FEFP shows a 1.55 percent or $108 decrease in per student funding.

The operating fund, expected to be $770 million, covers day-to-day costs such as salaries, benefits, energy services and instructional materials, while the capital fund — a fund that covers the cost of school construction projects — is valued at $512 million.

The district was expecting to use $31.9 million on school meals, service employee salaries and materials, but officials increased that amount to $33.7 million for the final budget.

Student transportation also will cost the district $49.7 million, and that includes over 720 buses and other district vehicles.

Board Member Robert Chilmonik voted against the tentative budget last month. He said the budget is not addressing the needs of the district staff and he would like to have a line-by-line analysis of the budget.

“You’re not expected to ask a lot of questions and just approve it,” he said. “We want all of this stuff, but we don’t have the money to do it.”

Other than the 154 personnel positions that have been cut, which he described as “placing an additional burden in the classroom,” he said the transportation budget can be reduced by eliminating the school choice program.

“I’d like to see us move towards a neighborhood concept of schools in elementary and middle,” he said. “And we can move that savings to encourage teachers to stay in lower performing schools.

Out of the $49.7 million transportation budget, Chilmonik said, approximately $10 million is devoted to school choice. Further, the price of fuel has steadily increased. In the 2008-2009 school year the district is expecting to pay between $6 to $7 million for fuel.

Earlier this year the superintendent, school officials and local principals formed the Budget Committee to deal with the district’s looming $29 million shortfall. They outlined a number of cuts which included special projects and employee positions.

Over $8 million of special projects were cut, 154 positions were cut or shifted at the district office, we delayed the opening of a school, and funding for non-core programs were reduced in order to balance the general fund budget,” said Browder.

Chairman Jeanne Dozier said she believes the budget will be passed on Tuesday.

I think the budget will go through the way it is being presented and we are now looking at anything we can do for the upcoming year,” said Dozier. “Right now everything I have looked at is basically the best we can do with what we got.

Also, salary negotiations with the Teachers Association of Lee County and the Support Personnel Association of Lee County will resume on Monday. Browder said that negotiations will have no effect on allocations within the budget.

What is in the budget is in the budget. The money that is there will be the money we will deal with in negotiations,” he said.