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District officials: Budgets equal less funds for education

By Staff | Apr 22, 2009

Even though state legislators claim that proposed budgets in the House and Senate leave educational funding unscathed, members of the Lee County School Board contend the budgets decrease per student spending and hide the fact in “smoke and mirrors.”
Last week both houses of the Florida Legislature passed budgets that leave per student spending at $6,860 through a bundling of categorical dollars, used to purchase textbooks or for transportation.
Another proposed budget fills gaps in per student spending with temporary federal stimulus dollars that begin disappearing after three years.
“There seems to be some confusion that it is the same,” said budget director Ami Desamours. “It will be reduced next year if either one of these are passed.”
Officials from the school district said that even with the shuffling of funds, per student spending has decreased by $300.
“They took three of the main categorical funds and moved them up into FEFP (Florida Education Finance Program), and we still see an 8 percent reduction,” said vice Chairman Steve Teuber. “The bottom line is they decimated us and it isn’t pretty. Public education was badly hit, however they understand that and are trying to do the best they can.”
The budget department expects a shortfall between $25 million and $40 million, although a plan has been formulated to potentially cut 574 positions if the shortfall exceeds $50 million.
Even when the final budget is handed down by July 1, the state can still make additional cuts later this year.
Over the last two years the district has had funds cut twice in the middle of a school year, said Desamours, and it could happen again if property values continue to decrease. The House and Senate drafted their budgets assuming that property values only drop by 12 percent.
The school district based its budget on a decrease of 22 percent. While Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson has not released official property values for the year, Desamours said the budget office’s figure is usually close to the county number.
Desamours added that the district also expects a full-time student shortfall of between 500 and 700 students, but the state’s official Lee County student count is 78,272.
The Lee County school budget cannot be finished until the state reconciles the House and Senate versions, said Superintendent James Browder.
“Until we get a solid budget we can’t do anything except prepare for the worst. So that is where you understand we are,” he said.
“We ask every constituent in Lee County to continue to work with legislators. It has made a difference and it will make a difference,” said Teuber.