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Browder seeking alternative to cutting programs

By Staff | May 27, 2009

The importance of arts and music in the school versus a potential tax increase was the top discussion Tuesday night at a meeting of the Lee County School Board where Superintendent James Browder agreed to formulate a plan B before June’s budget workshop.
A number of teachers and students addressed the board on the arts in Lee County. Recently, the board agreed to save half of the district’s elementary arts programs as long as voters approve a one-time tax increase.
Opinions on whether a tax increase is needed are split, yet the community spoke clearly Tuesday by stating that the arts need to stay. As a result, the board directed Browder to draft an alternative option that, according to Board Member Elinor Scricca, would not cut programs or negatively impact students.
A one-time tax increase is on the table. It would push the district’s discretionary millage up by 0.25 percent, forcing homeowners to pay anywhere from $18.75 to $68.75 more depending on the price of their home. Overall, the increase would raise $16.3 million that the board insists will help save arts and music programs.
For some teachers the idea of a tax increase is not ideal, but if it saves arts programs than they support the initiative.
“What is more important, not having art and music or not having a tax increase?” asked Carolyn Gora, a middle school art teacher and Golden Apple recipient.
The only board member opposing the tax hike is Robert Chilmonik because he claims that the district has many wasteful programs that need be trimmed to save money. Later this week he plans on releasing some cost reduction proposals.
“The best approach is to look carefully at our expenditures and costs and reducing wherever we can. If you can’t find $16 million in a $1.55 billion budget you just aren’t looking,” said Chilmonik.
Cape Coral resident Jeff Hanjian also addressed the board on an idea discussed by art teachers last month to hire consultant John Benham to assist the school district in keeping the arts.
He told the board Tuesday that cutting elementary arts and music would decrease enrollment in secondary schools because those programs would not be available to students. Also, the district would have to hire more teachers in the long run to watch over students who would have enrolled in an elective.
According to Hanjian, some 1.4 traditional teachers would be needed for every one fine arts teacher.
“The cuts will result in more money than the cuts themselves over the next five years,” he said. “If parents want to support that effort we can have him (Benham) come.”
Local business owners also pointed out that corporations would not invest in Lee County if the arts are cut because executives and employees do not want their children to relocate to a school district that does not offer arts or music programs.
Rebecca Shay, a student at the North Fort Myers Academy of the Arts, said even though her schedule is packed with honors and college level classes, she still participates in the school’s drama program.
“Music and drama are my life. I don’t know what I would do without them,” Shay said.
Money is tight for the Lee County School District, and some are questioning whether certain expenditures are wasteful. Bob Rushlow, president of the Support Personnel Association of Lee County, disagreed with the board’s decision to purchase $85,554 worth of GPS units for maintenance vehicles and its “white fleet,” and $7,050 for hand held scanners for food services.
Both purchase orders were approved unanimously Tuesday night.
“I don’t know if that comes out of capital or operating, but that is a waste of money,” said Rushlow. “Our children are supposed to be our number one priority, and this isn’t putting our children first.”
According to Rushlow, devices such as the GPS units should not be purchased at this time because the appropriated funds could be used elsewhere. He added that district vehicles have been able to operate for years without the need of the devices.
Browder said the hand-held scanners are already being used in the district’s cafeterias, and the GPS are needed to track schools buses and other vehicles.