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School district staff: ‘Not cutting just to be cutting’

By Staff | Feb 11, 2009

In dealing with budget reductions this year, staff from the Lee County School District have vowed not to cut for the sake of cutting, but to emphasize efficiency across the county.
Budget director Ami Desamours informed the board Tuesday of the possibility that shortfalls may surpass the expected $40 million for 2010. She explained that if the state loses $6 billion this year, as suggested by some legislators, the district could be facing losses as high as $81.1 million.
Lee schools currently are operating under 2005 funding levels, and last year the district cut $67 million including hundreds of staff positions.
During a budget workshop two weeks ago, it was suggested that 600 positions including teachers and support personnel could be lost, but additional budget shortfalls could spell more cuts.
“We have continued with our budget committee meetings, and the focus has been increasing efficiency. Not cutting just to be cutting, but making sure we have rhyme or reason behind it,” said Desamours.
Superintendent James Browder recently sent a letter to state representatives asking for flexibility on how Lee County uses its local tax funds.
“If the cut is really horrendous like today’s news indicates, we need to be thoughtful and act as quickly as we can,” he said.
Browder is asking the state to allow Lee County to lead a pilot program that gives school districts control over their capital outlay property taxes, school recognition funding, teachers lead funding and funding set aside for school advisory councils.
Board Member Robert Chilmonik said he continues to support a reallocation referendum that would allow funding from the district’s $500 million capital fund, which is used for construction and maintenance, to be transferred to the operating fund to avoid layoffs and program cuts.
“My concern is that you have the flexibility to do something, even if you don’t use it,” said Chilmonik. “If we continue to wait, there will be so much damage to the classroom, we won’t be able to deal with it.”
Board members also discussed increased federal funding from President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan, which the Senate passed Tuesday 61-37 as the president spoke in downtown Fort Myers.
The plan could mean $14 billion for K-12 school construction, $1 billion for technology in the classroom, $13 billion for special education funding, $13 billion for Title I programs, $66 million for homeless student education, $200 million in competitive grants for districts that raise student achievement and $4.1 billion for early childhood development, according to the district’s budget department.
Lee County may welcome federal aid with open arms, but Desamours reiterated that the stimulus money would have narrowly defined uses.
“All of the dollars associated with stimulus package were for very specific things. Not necessarily dollars given to states to hand out to districts to do what they feel is necessary,” she said.
Chairman Jane Kuckel also said any federal assistance is meant to supplement services offered by the district and not replace other funding sources.
“It is not reoccurring money so it’s not money we should spend on reoccurring expenses, which is what we need,” said Kuckel. “It is not intended to supplant, but supplement what we already have.”