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Jax Daily Record Friday, Jul. 8, 201112:00 PM EST

Schools make tough budget cuts

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by Lilly Rockwell

The News Service of Florida

A first-year teacher from Broward County is likely out of a job. But if that same teacher worked in Hillsborough County, his or her job would be safe.

The dust is starting to settle after months of lengthy public hearings and brutal negotiations over the budgets of Florida’s 67 school districts.

But the effect of this year’s budget shortfalls is experienced differently across the state, with some districts cutting hundreds of teachers off their payroll and others only making minor adjustments.

Most school district boards start their budget writing process in April and finish by September.

Because of the loss of federal stimulus dollars and a significant drop in funding from the state, districts statewide are grappling with budget shortfalls that range from a few million to more than $170 million.

The Legislature cut more than $1 billion from education in this year’s budget, amounting to a drop of almost 8 percent, which amounts to $542 per student.

“It’s a bigger cut coming on top of three or four more years of cuts and it’s obviously having a huge impact,” said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow.

“It’s making it more difficult for our schools to serve our students and serve them well,” he said.

Pudlow said the cuts to school funding this year are “by far the biggest” in decades.

But Republican budget writers defended cutting the education budget as a necessary sacrifice with a tough economy and declining tax revenues.

No part of the budget was left unscathed and education was shielded from the worst cuts, say lawmakers who helped craft the education budget.

Still, districts were left with unappetizing budget-cutting choices, such as furloughs, layoffs and cuts to popular after-school programs, transportation and school safety officers.

The result: In Duval County, some sports programs are being eliminated, 87 teachers are being laid off and bus service is curtailed.

In Broward County, more than 1,400 teachers are without a job.

In Miami-Dade County, the salaries of 400 top administrators, principals and assistant principals will be slashed.

And in Marion County, the next academic year may bring with it longer school days and a four-day work week.

But other districts, such as Orange County, were able to escape large budget shortfalls. That’s because Orange County passed a local property tax to bolster school funding.

Hillsborough, where Tampa is located, was also able to whittle away at a $100 million budget shortfall without slashing jobs, reported the St. Petersburg Times.

Factors that affect how much a school has to cut include whether or not the district saved any federal stimulus dollars, whether enrollment numbers are rising or falling and how much property taxes have declined.

Schools received about $1.2 billion in federal stimulus dollars. But districts received conflicting messages on whether to spend or save the money.

Those that chose to save saw lighter budget shortfalls this year. Those that spent, such as Broward County, suffered larger budget cuts.

The size of the shortfall varies with each district.

Broward was one of the hardest-hit school districts. The school had to lay off 1,400 teachers and nearly 600 district employees that included administrators, maintenance and clerical staff.

The district is also considering furloughs, confirmed a district spokesman, but no decision has been made as to how many furlough days will be required.

Many of the laid-off Broward teachers were hired in the past two years with one-time funds provided through federal stimulus dollars.

In Marion County, perhaps one of the most controversial school budget cuts was the decision to move toward a four-day week in 2012. Initially the school board was considering a four-day week starting in 2011.

Spokesman Kevin Christian said the district has cut $51 million from its budget since 2007. This year, the district has to cut $24 million and has instituted hiring and spending freezes, is slashing department budgets and is considering cutting out substitute teachers, which would save the district $2 million annually.

“It’s not going to get any easier,” said Christian. “Quite honestly, next year I would be surprised if we did not do the four-day week.”

That decision is unpopular with some parents because it requires additional day care.

Schools say they have been battered by years of difficult budget cuts and expect more next year.

Already, Christian said Marion County is bracing for a cut of another $8 million.

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