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School district looks to state for funds

By Staff | Jan 3, 2009

The School District of Lee County will join hundreds of other governmental agencies emphatically asking the Florida Legislature for help during the upcoming special session starting Monday.
For months the school district has battled millions in budget shortfalls and lower student enrollment but next week may be its chance to finally secure more funding to salvage the next school year.
State officials are bracing for shortfalls totaling $2.3 billion in Florida’s budget, funding that could be pulled from the education pool for the Legislature to reach its constitutionally-mandated balanced budget.
The special session proclamation by Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Ray Sansom outlined the direction of the next week’s session that will consider modifying educational programs but not taxes related to alcohol or tobacco products.
The school district is supporting an overhaul of costly educational programs, but also is worried the state will claim more funds if student enrollment stays low. In October it was forced to return $12.3 million to the state because of lower-than-expected enrollment.
Vice Chairman of the Lee County School Board Steven Teuber said this week that district officials have met with the county’s legislative delegation to hammer out their platform for the special session.
“The things we really want our delegation to push is to relax the requirements of the Class Size Amendment to keep it at school level averages and to reduce the restrictions on how we spend money,” said Teuber.
Since class sizes are capped by the state — 18 for elementary, 22 for middle and 25 for high school — the district has ambitiously been working on expanding the number of schools until this year when student enrollment dropped by 2,800 students.
Teuber also explained that by eliminating certain “categoricals” within the budget, such as the class size reduction initiative, the district could have some flexibility in spending.
“Until we find out what they are planning or covering we don’t know what is going to happen,” said Teuber.
Economic options are running out for the school district after forsaking a flexibility referendum that would have allowed the transfer of funds from the capital to general fund, citing reoccurring debt in the district’s $512 million capital account as the reason for saying no.
Voters in the Collier County School District approved a similar referendum in November and the school board later transferred between $16 and $19 million to cover its shortfall, but that won’t be available until July 2009, according to reports.
Board Member Robert Chilmonik said he is concerned about programs being eliminated, but said he hopes any cuts are carried out fairly across the state. He also supports Florida’s requirement for a balanced budget, but recognizes the state’s economy depends on an educated population.
“We need to have a state that provides us with a little more flexibility on how we spend our money,” he said.
On the other hand, Chilmonik said there needs to be increased accountability on how school districts spend money because, in his opinion, the district has been wasteful.
“We have to run on a lean government, the days of spending without accountability are over,” he said. “They must look at oversight and accountability and providing more guidelines on how this money is spent.”