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School board approves $1.55 billion budget for 2009; Staff is working to save 60 positions

By Staff | Sep 10, 2008

The Lee County School Board passed the final 2009 budget 4-1 on Tuesday night with Board Member Robert Chilmonik voting against each line amendment, stating that he felt there was “inadequate public discussion” on the budget.

Chilmonik said he is concerned about supporting teachers in the classroom, increasing salaries and providing the superintendent with a flexibility that would allow him to transfer funds to avoid eliminating programs or staff.

“I feel we have a champagne taste with a beer budget and we can’t do that,” he said. “We need to look at long- and short-term reductions.”

Other board members said they are disappointed that the vote was not unanimous.

Chairman Jeanne Dozier explained that the district worked to create the best budget possible.

“This isn’t the budget we would’ve liked, however I think Dr. Browder and his staff is to be commended,” said Dozier. “They’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions.”

While Superintendent James Browder presented a balanced budget, he also said the district is facing economic troubles and decreased student enrollment. He said the district is down 3,100 students although the final number used to determine funding will be taken in October.

The current enrollment in the district is 77,578 students, 3,100 less than what was expected. The 10-day enrollment count had the district down by 2,000.

“This budget, like others in the state, is suffering because of lack of students in the community,” said Browder. “Tonight we are bringing you a balanced budget.”

The district proposed a total millage rate of 6.87 or $6.87 per every $1,000 worth of taxable property. That rate would generate approximately $578 million for the school district.

According to district officials, this is the lowest millage rate ever.

“This is the sixth year in a row that the overall millage rate decreased in the district,” said Lee Legutko, the district’s chief financial officer.

Overall, the budget is valued at $1.55 billion, an increase from the tentative budget passed last month worth $1.54 billion. The increase resulted from a solidification of funds, said Browder.

The final budget passed nearly two hours after Browder announced the district is trying to work out a solution to not eliminate approximately 60 instructional positions because of decreased student enrollment. The last round of cuts amounted to 154 employee positions, although district officials said most of those employees were placed in other positions.

“We are down 3,000 students,” said Browder. “We are in the process of working through that.”

The district is looking at shuffling around the positions belonging to open-ended employees or those who are certified to teach in the classroom but do not receive benefits, he said.

The district could also eliminate positions held by first-year teachers with an annual, renewable contract. New teachers in the school district enter into an annual contract that is renewed each year until their third year when they are considered “tenured.”

“I thought we would lose 30 to 40 instructional positions, but I believe it will be more than that,” said Browder.

Funding for the Lee County School District is calculated using the number of full-time equivalent students or FTE.

Earlier this year the district set aside $13 million for any FTE shortfall, but Browder said an additional $3 million to $5 million would be needed to make up the unexpected drop in student enrollment.

He added that a worst-case scenario could result in the elimination of 75 positions.

“What we are going to do is fix it so we can keep as many people working as possible and minimize damage to human capital,” said Browder.

District officials are currently communicating with principals to move teacher positions around the county, and Browder said the district is trying to use student eligibility to potentially move students to those schools with lower enrollments.

Only two members of the community spoke during public comment at the hearing and both spoke in support of the proposed budget.