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Fund education first

By Staff | Apr 29, 2009

Per-student funding numbers have largely escaped the budget ax in Tallahassee this year as both the House and the Senate have passed proposals that leave levels pretty much intact.

The House plan, in fact, actually calls for an average of $6,891 per student, a figure that is slightly higher than the current $6,860.

School district officials initially breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Upon further analysis, though, those same officials have concluded that there still is cause for concern.

One, while both chambers have agreed to maintain per-student contribution levels next year, the tally uses methodology that depends on some unknowns, including new fees and short-term federal stimulus dollars.

All of that money may not materialize and cuts still could be forthcoming, officials fear.

Two, local critics of the House and Senate funding plans also argue that some of the money is moving from other allocation lines, which could result in fewer dollars overall.

Add in the projection of far fewer local revenues due to the continuing decline of property values and the picture becomes much more bleak: A decrease in revenue of between $25 million and $40 million, with worst-case scenarios outlined by the district topping $50 million.

We agree the funding challenges are real. We agree cuts of various types are inevitable.

The programs-will-be-slashed, classroom-jobs-will-be-lost approach to crisis budgeting bothers us, though.

It’s the standard bureaucratic approach, one with which Cape residents following the city budget will be familiar. When times get tough, look first to – and stress – the kinds of cuts most likely to hit home with taxpayers.

Public safety is always a good one.

No more arts and music for kids – or the elimination of pretty much any high-profile program – works almost as well.

The potential loss of up to 574 classroom positions? You not only rile up the parents but poke the hornets’ nest of teacher and support staff unions.

And if you deflect all the blame to Tallahassee?

It almost makes the 16 percent hike in the property tax rate the school district is contemplating look like the only option.

We suggest a couple of things.

One, program cuts that affect students and classrooms, and tax increases, are the last place to start when looking to balance revenues and reality.

Some better places to begin the process?

Administrative costs. The School District of Lee County continues to employ more administrators to school-level employees than the state average. Qualify and quantify these posts, starting at the top where salaries tend to be higher than those earned by, say, the average fifth grade art teacher.

Cost controls. With the district’s long-promised computer system past deadline and overbudget, and a report showing 73 pieces of equipment unaccounted for – including computers, video projectors, camcorders, two golf carts and, yes, a boat trailer – this should be a given. Better internal controls will save millions.

Alternative funding. No, we don’t mean higher or new taxes. The district has steadfastly refused to ask the voters if they would approve, in the short-term, using capital dollars for operations. Ask them. With growth slowed and student enrollment declining, it may buy some time and keep money in the classrooms.

Salaries and benefits. The school district has announced discussions with district bargaining units. That makes sense. Meanwhile, it has added salary and benefits at the top with Dr. James Browder’s contract renewal being a prime example. Hypocrisy is hard to sell, even with the worst scare tactics. Lead by example. And cut from the top.

The public has a role here, too, parents and general taxpayers, alike.

Keep the pressure on at both the state and local level. Education is one of the most important programs tax dollars fund. Demand its fair share – but don’t write a blank check because “the children will suffer.”

They don’t have to if our elected officials, and our highly paid professionals, do their jobs and make educating our children their top priority.

– Reporter editorial