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Budget cuts could put dent in state’s education funding

By Staff | Jan 14, 2009

After spending the last two weeks dealing with a $2.3 billion budget shortfall, state legislators convened this month’s special session Wednesday. It was originally called Jan. 5 to deal with the loss of billions of dollars from a troubled economy taking in less revenue than ever before.
Legislators have been filling shortfalls by shuffling around reserves and making cuts, but there has been no discussion about raising taxes. Next year’s shortfalls across the state are expected to surpass this year’s by $2 billion.
Public education is taking a substantial hit in this year’s budget. Currently legislators have drawn up plans to cut $500 million from Florida’s education system, according to reports from across the state.
State Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, said the session dealt with a combination of cuts and redirects, and the use of trust funds. When the session ended Wednesday afternoon, the Legislature had collected $2.6 billion to cover shortfalls with $300 million to spare.
“No cut is an easy cut to make,” said Aubuchon. “This is unprecedented in Florida history where we had three consecutive years of declining revenue.”
He said per student spending was cut by $140. On the other hand, over the past nine years education spending has increased $230 per student every year.
“It is important to know that because everyone is so focused on the $140 reduction rather than the trend, which was an increase,” said Aubuchon.
Now that the Florida Senate and House passed the budget, it will be presented to Gov. Charlie Crist, who has the ability to make line-item vetoes on any part. Reports from across the state this week said Crist may veto any substantial cuts to education.
Officials from the governor’s office did not comment Wednesday whether Crist would veto any parts of the budget.
According to Lee Schools Superintendent James Browder, there are approximately 400 jobs that could be eliminated next year depending on state cuts to education. Cuts also may consume certain extracurricular programs or those with art or music.
Donna Mutzenard, service unit director for the Island Coast Service Unit of the Florida Education Association, said the school district will stay afloat from now until the end of the 2008 to 2009 school year.
“It was what we were expecting, and as far as I know the district is going to be fine. Other counties aren’t as lucky,” said Mutzenard.
She said the FEA does not anticipate any layoffs between now and the end of the school year, but next year is expected to be far worse.
Already, the Lee County School District expects a budget shortfall between $40 million and $50 million in 2009 to 2010.
“Next year is a whole new ball game,” she said, “and who knows what they are going to do in the regular session.”