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Lee school district may face another shortfall in budget; Browder: Mid-year cuts

By Staff | Sep 24, 2008

After Tuesday’s board meeting it is evident that the Lee County School District will face another shortfall of budget funds before the end of the 2008 to 2009 year.

For months district officials have been grappling with a $29 million shortfall, which could be substantially more if the October student enrollment numbers are less than expected.

Superintendent James Browder announced Tuesday afternoon that the district is facing another budget reduction caused by a general decrease in government budgets statewide.

Gov. Charlie Crist cut the state’s budget by billions this summer and these cuts have swiftly trickled down to affect various entities across the state.

The governor’s office contacted the school district and told them to set aside 2 percent of their funds for a rainy day, but it is evident that percent should have been greater, explained to Browder.

“We were told this week that it might be smart for us to start looking for 3.5 percent,” he said. “Unless general revenue dramatically changes in the next several months, we are going to look at a mid-year reduction.”

Funds between 3.5 percent and 4 percent of the district’s budget would account for $20 million. That would be an additional cut on top of the current shortfall of $29 million.

Browder said he would expect any cuts to occur around winter break.

“As I listen to superintendents around the state, they are concerned about the economy and people in our state. Public education was going to be held harmless and if you look at the percentage of reductions, it has been reduced by 14 percent,” Browder said.

Within the next two days Browder will outline the district’s woes, as well as what is being done by the Florida Department of Education and the governor’s office.

Simultaneously the superintendent announced an ambitious plan to standardize the school district. He said the district needs to standardize things like instructional materials and the district’s writing or reading plan, and officials need to figure out what data items teachers should have close at hand.

The plan focuses on common assessments that should be given in each subject area and at each grade level. He explained that parents should be able to log onto the district’s Web site and be aware of what students are doing in each classroom at any given time.

In preparation for the initiative, the school board purchased SP Snapshot, a program that keeps all student information in one database. Board Member Elinor Scricca said the program was purchased through federal Title I funds.

“It’s technology where our teachers at their desktop will be able to retrieve their students’ information,” said Browder.

Compass Learning Odyssey is another program the board approved. It allows students to retrieve credits lost from failing a class.

“It allows us to go in middle schools and give youngsters a chance to retrieve credit. It’s very similar to NovaNet in high schools,” he said.

It is unclear whether the push toward standardization reflects the lower budget, which would not be able to support more lavish lessons and programs throughout the county, but Browder said the district has already been ahead of many others statewide in developing standardized academic plans.

He explained that 50 percent of schools in the district already use a common assessment, but the challenge will be teachers on the high school level because they are more independent and departmentalized than those in elementary and middle schools.

Scricca said she is concerned about how the district could afford an overhaul of its academic plans.

“As we do this and give our teachers the ability and tools for which they need to work, and with the economic situation becoming more dire every year, how are we going to pay for this?” she asked.

Browder’s response was that the initiatives are already being used in the district, and that “we will have to find a way to do that in the dollars allocated.”

Board Member Robert Chilmonik said the standardized assessments would help bring organization to the district, but also said teachers need to be supported in the classroom with programs that will benefit students.

Those who may be at a disadvantage under common assessments would be students who are English Language Learners, formerly ESOL, who are trying to retain core knowledge but are also struggling to work through a language barrier.

Students in an ELL program perform at various levels requiring a teacher to individualize their instruction and a potential problem could arise where identical tests are given to students with radically different skill levels.

Out of 70,877 students in Lee County, 6,804 students are ELL. That includes 5,531 Spanish-speaking students, 736 Creole-speaking students and 537 who speak other languages. Furthermore, ELL students in charter schools are not included in these numbers.