School Board confident it can overcome budget shortfalls
The Lee County School District continues to wrangle with funding cuts at the state level.
The Florida legislative session resulted in decreased public education funding by $1.4 billion to $16.6 billion.
Cuts include a reduction in funding per student of $542.03, which leaves the Lee County School District with a major task as it discusses next year’s school budget with a projected reduction of more than $31 million.
Bob Cerra of Cerra Consulting Group said although the school district was anticipating a large deficit from the legislature, some of the cuts and changes were a bit of a surprise. He said they understood and recognized the difficulties before the budget began, which gave them a better idea of where they were going to end up.
“It is not out of the realm of what we understood back in January and February,” Cerra said about the final state budget.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Larry Tihen said the weekly conversations he had with Cerra helped the district prepare for next year’s funding reduction.
“It allows us to get started on this well before the end of the session,” Tihen said about the district’s budget process. “It has allowed us to move ahead before the legislation had passed.”
Board member Jeanne Dozier said the district, as always, will step up and make the budget work again next year. She said that educators are always asked to do more with less, which is why the legislature targets education when budget cuts are addressed.
Dozier said they know that people who are in this business are doing it not for the pay, but for the interest of the children.
“It is unfortunate the economy is the way it is,” she said. “I wish the news had been better, but it wasn’t. I know our employees will step up to the plate and do what they always do.
In addition to the budget, Cerra also provided an overview of the major bills that were passed this legislation session. Among those included the Senate issues on education budget conforming, teacher quality, retirement and charter schools. The House bills included the accountability bill and digital learning/virtual education.
Cerra said the education budget conforming bill was a major victory for public schools due to the class size reduction relief provided in the classrooms. He said in Lee County it will be an asset for the planning of the future because there is not a daily requirement of growth in classrooms due to mobility.
The teacher quality bill, which passed early on in the legislative session, he said, aligned with the Race to the Top grant that the majority of Florida schools received.
Cerra said they also knew the Legislature had been laying the groundwork for the retirement system for 18 months.
“We knew while major cuts were going to be handed to the district, some of those cuts were going to be shifted onto the employees,” he said.
Cerra said the retirees or those who are already in the Deferred Retirement Option Program are entirely protected from the new bill. The changes will occur to the existing employees who must pay 3 percent of their salary unless they are in DROP, along with losing their cost-of-living benefit service credits earned after July 1.
The charter school bill passed to create high performing schools for funding and the digital learning bill was passed, so districts would increase the availability of digital learning options.
Revisions to the parent guide and code of conduct for students was also brought forward to the board to look over due to language that needed to be incorporated from the current legislative session.
The verbiage for dress code was discussed Tuesday, along with the consequences students are faced with if they violate that code.
Board members showed concern during the briefing of the draft revision because they wanted to incorporate ways to decrease the violations and have positive reinforcements.
Board member Mary Fischer said she is concerned that there were no alternative options for suspensions if the student had many offenses. She said for the district to meet its 100 percent graduation goal, the students need to be in the classroom so they can be a part of the learning environment.
Fischer said since she has been working at a high school for four years, she would see the same students in the dog house.
“Their academic success was decreasing and they were losing interest in coming to school,” she said. “We need to look at our code of conduct with some positive interventions up front.”
Board chairman Thomas Scott agreed with Fischer that there needs to be more positive options.
“Instead of ‘no, no, no,’ I would like to find ways to say ‘yes,'” he said.
Tihen said unfortunately due to budget cuts, they have seen a reduction in counselors in the schools.
“Some of the support that we have had has been reduced,” he said, adding that they need to look at the resources they have, along with looking at the budget.
Interventions were also discussed to help decrease bullying in the schools.