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School district lobbies for additional funding

By Staff | Apr 1, 2009

Superintendent James Browder returned to Lee County Friday night after lobbying the Florida Legislature to provide additional funding for the school district.

Browder was in Tallahassee since last Wednesday and sat down with members of the Lee County Legislative Delegation to ask for more funding.

“They are aware their role in this is difficult,” said Browder. “And I said, look, you have to do everything you can to assist us so we don’t have to cut programs that are important to children and the community.”

Last week, the district released a preliminary budget based on a $51 million shortfall from the state. Overall, it would cut 578 positions, including 80 elementary art and music teachers. District officials are expecting a loss of between $30 and $70 million.

Some discussion has also centered around reducing employee salaries by 2 percent, only three months after the district approved a 3 percent raise for all positions.

Barbara Von Harten, principal of The Sanibel School, said on Wednesday morning that she and her staff are moving forward with plans based upon the preliminary district budget, which includes cutbacks in certified art and music teachers at the elementary school level. The proposed cuts, however, will not effect middle school staff at the school.

“From what I’ve heard, (the budget shortfall) will be reflected at all elementary schools throughout the district,” said Von Harten. “As the principal of a K-8 school, we will plan on continuing to provide our art and music classes at the elementary level, just without some of the certified teachers that we’ve had in the past.”

During the last school board meeting, Browder said he was in the dark to the real extent of budget cuts because the state hasn’t handed over any concrete numbers. On Friday, he said not much of the dire financial situation has changed, although he added that the Senate’s proposal is more favorable for schools.

“The situation hasn’t changed dramatically from when I left,” said Browder. “The sense I got from the legislators we talked to is that it’s very serious.”

The Senate’s budget avoids massive cuts by depending on increased gaming revenues from Seminole casinos if a deal is brokered between the tribe and the state of Florida. It would reportedly maintain per student spending which in Lee County was $7,453 in 2006-07.

On the other hand, the Senate’s budget would require the state to loosen restrictions on the Class Size Amendment which caps the amount of students in every classroom. This was approved in a 2002 voter referendum and would have to be overturned by the Legislature.

Browder also said that the Senate’s budget used more federal stimulus money than the House version.

Many states, including Florida, have to obtain a waiver from the federal government to receive stimulus funds. Any states that don’t hold school spending at 2006 levels are required to obtain the waiver. Lee County would operate under 2004-05 levels if the newest state budget passed.

Once the House’s proposal is released next week, it will have to be reconciled with versions from the Senate and governor. The state is expecting a $6 billion shortfall.

The superintendent said he hopes the state releases funding numbers within the next three weeks. By July 1, the Lee County School Board has to approve a balanced budget according to the Florida Constitution.

(Executive Editor Jeff Lysiak contributed to this report.)