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Lee schools among country’s ‘poorest’

By Staff | May 23, 2009

Lee County is among the poorest nationwide when it comes to the financial well-being of its students’ families, the community was told Friday.
The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools hosted the 2009 State of Our Schools breakfast with Superintendent James Browder.
Similar to the president’s “State of the Union” address, this event featured the superintendent discussing all aspects of the school district as well as his vision for the future. It was held early Friday morning at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre.
Every year the event also chooses a surprise theme carried out by the superintendent and the foundation staff. Last year’s theme was Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and this year was baseball. Browder and foundation staff wore Miracle baseball jerseys and caps.
He discussed many of the challenges facing this county.
The Lee County School District was recently named one of the top 100 poorest school districts across the United States, explained Browder. This information is determined by studying the socioeconomic status of students between the ages of 5 and 17.
Students who are on free or reduced lunch jumped from 50 percent in 2007-2008 to 62 percent this year, he said.
“Right now in five of our schools, they started programs to feed families on the weekend,” said Browder. “Without it many of our youngsters wouldn’t receive a nutritious breakfast or lunch.”
Hector A. Cafferata Jr. Elementary School is one of the five involved in this program.
“You need to understand the challenge is huge when students come to school hungry,” said Browder.
Much of the discussion also centered around the district’s budget. So far the district has cut $90 million from its budget, said Browder, including $30 million in the beginning of this school year. The superintendent said he expected a shortfall of $70 million for 2010 but after state numbers were released they determined the shortfall to be $43 million.
“We all realize that tough decisions had to be made and we are thankful the final numbers aren’t as bad as they could have been,” said Browder. “One of the things that helped us is the $27 million of stimulus money.”
Because property values may fall more than the district expected, Browder and his staff are working to minimize any further cuts over the middle of 2009-2010 year.
Enrollment is another major issue for the district because funding from the state is based on the number of students attending Lee County schools. Last year the district lost over 1,000 students in the beginning and enrollment remained stagnant at 78,522 students.
Browder said that the Lee County School District has a 40 percent mobility rate.
“Given the fact that our total enrollment is down, you can see how much turnover we have in the district every year,” said Browder.
During the breakfast the superintendent also recognized excellent students and staff members, including Riverdale High student Justin Gannon who received a perfect score on the ACT and Dr. Larry Tihen, executive director of Curriculum, Quality and Staff Development, who was named the Just Read, Florida! Literacy Leader of the Year.
According to Marshall Bower, executive director of the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools, there were more than 300 business leaders, community members and district employees in attendance on Friday morning.