Putting Education Reform To The Test

How Florida Schools Are Coping With Budget Cuts

Joe Raedle / Getty Images News

Teachers rally against proposed budget cuts in March

Seminole County could turn classroom thermostats all the way up and athletes may have to pay to wear their school’s uniform.

The wife of a Polk County Tea Party congressman led a failed effort to raise money for college counselors whose positions were eliminated.

Many students can no longer walk to catch the bus after districts merged stops.

School districts have been forced to make painful budget choices as state property values decline and the economy continues to sputter. More than $2.1 billion has been cut from state education spending since 2008, according to the state education department.

This year, districts are facing an 8 percent cut, or $542 per student.

Every district has coped differently.

Schools have maintained services with the help of one-time federal aid the past two years, and many districts used that time to prepare for the money running out this September.

Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties managed a softer landing by targeting administration and other overhead.  Cutting central-office spending meant the districts avoided teacher layoffs and unpaid leave.

Hillsborough has trimmed $170 million from its administrative costs since 2007. District management took a pay cut in Miami-Dade as part of $95 million in administrative savings.

Orange County and Palm Beach County voters raised taxes to lessen the blow.

Other districts laid off teachers, forced staff to take unpaid leave or eliminated programs that may be popular but are not necessary for graduation.

“It’s Not Fair On The Kids”

South Florida’s Broward County, the nation’s sixth-largest school district, faces the biggest budget hole of any of the state’s urban districts.

Broward has laid off 2,400 workers, mostly teachers, to close a budget shortfall of more than $170 million.

“It’s not fair on the kids,” said Declan Lyons, a Latin and French teacher at Cypress Bay High in Broward County. “And now those kids have to be crammed into a room with teachers like cattle. It’s a strain on the kids, it’s a strain on the teachers and it’s a strain on the administration.”

“That’s our core value. That’s what we do. That’s our business.”

-Broward County schools’ assistant budget director Becky McMahan

Cypress Bay had to lay off 40 of Lyons’ colleagues due to cuts. A world languages class has grown to 37 students, making the task of teaching foreign language more difficult, Lyons said. The average Broward County teacher salary has declined 16 percent since 2008, the most in the state according to state education department data.

This was the toughest budget year district finance expert Becky McMahan has seen. The district exhausted $64 million in one-time funds to pay for teachers last year, she said.

The district could not hire those teachers again this year.

“That’s our core value. That’s what we do. That’s our business,” McMahan said.

Sweating Next Year’s Budget

Seminole County students won’t notice the cuts until next fall. The district already cut $80 million since 2008 and used its remaining one-time money in the current budget.

Seminole is considering a series of progressively more difficult decisions, facing a $22 million budget deficit next year. District budget experts sent a list of 33 possible cuts to the school board earlier this month. They include:

  • Eliminating art, music, technology and/or reading teachers to save up to $4.1 million.
  • Eliminating middle and high school athletic programs and saving $2.2 million.
  • Raising thermostats 1 degree to 78 degrees, the highest allowed by state law, saving $500,000.

The district is also considering converting some of its schools to district-operated charter schools, purchasing iPads instead of textbooks and eliminating health insurance for part-time employees.

School board chair Dede Schaffner said the district has exhausted the easy options and students are likely to feel the pain next year.

“The arts, music, sports are certainly…on the list,” she said. “We’re trying to combine bus stops, things like that.

“It’s hard to come up with $22 million doing that.”

Polk County eliminated college and career advisers this year. They were some of the 135 non-instructional employees laid off due to a $34 million shortfall.

Cindy Ross, wife of Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, led a fundraising effort of barbecues and car washes to raise $180,000 to pay the salaries of those counselors. The group raised just $26,000.

The counselors help students navigate the paperwork and bureaucracy of college applications, scholarships and other issues. Tony Martorana, one of the laid-off counselors, said they provided an essential service.

She now privately counsels students at her kitchen table.

“We’ve had many students…if it wasn’t for the position they would not have gone to college,” she said.

Another Option: Taxes

Some districts left the decision to voters to approve or reject tax hikes.

Orange County schools asked residents for more money last year when faced with a $90 million bill the district could not pay.

The district is one of the few to raise taxes to deal with its budget problems. Palm Beach County voters approved raising taxes by about $32 million to pay for arts and other school programs.

The owners of a $150,000 home will pay an additional $125 a year in property taxes until the tax expires in 2014.

Orange County school board chairman Bill Sublette said the district has worked hard to improve its quality. The district is not perfect, Sublette said, but approving the tax increase was a sign of trust from the community that schools have been better run the past decade.

“That is giant,” Sublette said. “We’re probably the only school district…that’s not in a budget crisis.

Reporter Robin Sussingham contributed to this story.

[spreadsheet key=”0Av06TaO9jXYrdEpGTUo1aUpXcmY3ZWVpd093SDM4V3c” source=”Hillsborough County Schools” ]


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