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Lee County School Board given update on budget, funding

By Staff | Jun 3, 2009

Three weeks before the Lee County School Board holds a public workshop on its 2010 budget, members received an update of the state budget and how much funding they can expect this summer.
According to Bob Cerra, the school district’s state and national lobbyist, the legislative delegation made sure there were no major changes in per student spending for Lee County, even though at the start of this year’s legislative session superintendents were told to expect cuts as high as 15 percent to deal with the state’s $6 billion shortfall.
Cerra said local priorities are to avoid massive cuts, obtain flexibility for the school budget, maintain special weights for IB and AP programs, defeat legislation with additional fiscal impacts and fix the district’s audit exception issue.
He also discussed the ability of the district to levy a tax increase of 0.25 percent in the discretionary millage. The Legislature provided school boards with an additional authority to raise taxes if more funding is needed, but did not force a tax increase down the throat of the state’s 67 districts.
“There were a number of legislators who signed no new tax pledges, and to get the budget we did, there were significant increases in user fees, so even to get the additional authority to raise taxes was difficult on many of these folks,” said Cerra.
The tax increase proposal was not on the table at the outset of the session, explained Cerra, and it is now up to boards to decide whether they choose to implement it.
“Even the fact the Legislature gave us this authority, even if we don’t use it, it’s something we should be thankful for,” he said.
Vice Chairman Steven Teuber said the tax increase is necessary for some districts that may not be able to make payroll in 2010. He worked with the Florida School Board Association to lobby Tallahassee to offer the option.
It is unclear whether the board will vote for a tax increase, but members directed Superintendent James Browder to draft a Plan B — not considering the tax increase — that he will present at the board’s budget workshop June 19.
If the district chooses to go ahead with increasing taxes, the proposal would need to be approved by a supermajority of the board and set to referendum in the 2010 general election in order to be available in the next school year.
Lee County School District Budget Director Ami Desamours said decreases in local property values could be as high as 25 percent, although over the next five years values are expected to flatten out and increase by 5 percent in the next five years.
On Tuesday afternoon, Cerra described future revenue estimates as “shaky.”
Desamours said that over the next five years the district will have very little new construction, and it will decrease bus purchases for 2010 and 2011, which on average costs $8 million per school year. Currently, the school district is on a rotation system where it replaces old buses after 12 years.
Board Member Robert Chilmonik said he is concerned about the district spending $17 million on bus purchases between 2006 and 2007. He is also individually preparing a plan to reduce costs across the county.
According to Browder, the district spent double because buses were purchased at the beginning and end of the same school year.
“The data has been budgeted around $8 (million) to $9 million, and when you say $17 million it tells me we were doubling up,” he said. “Because of price increases that were coming, we bought the next go-round of buses early to save some dollars.”
Browder said the district’s goal is to replace buses that do not have air conditioning. There are approximately 200 buses without the systems.
Board Member Elinor Scricca said the district is working in difficult economic times, and as a result the board should examine the budget as a whole rather than through individual figures to see if the district is overspending.
“We have a very difficult three or four years ahead of us, and rather than trying to be negative about it, what we need to do is make decisions that will help us entertain, keep and maintain a viable school system,” she said.