THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 9, 2011 -
Florida lawmakers approved an education budget in the final hours of the legislative session that slashed money that pays for schools by nearly 8 percent, cutting funding by $542 per student.
Budget writers say they were left with few choices but to slash spending when faced with a $3.75 billion budget hole, and said they tried to shield education from the more severe cuts that hit other areas, such as prisons.
Public schools are now left to figure out how to close multi-million budget gaps, with many crafting plans to lay off hundreds of employees, and cutting school services like extracurricular programs.
This year’s budget was particularly harsh for public schools because it comes on top of years of falling property tax revenue, drops in enrollment and cuts or at least stagnation in the what the Legislature sends to schools.
“If you look at the budget we’re coming out with, it could be a lot worse,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. Lawmakers in charge of the education budget initially braced for more severe 15 percent cuts. But Montford explained that schools will have a hard time coping with even a very slight cut.
“If this were the first year, (schools) could absorb it,” said Montford, a former school superintendent. “We’ve been absorbing these cuts now for five years.”
Already, school districts have drafted spending plans that include layoffs and salary cuts, furloughs, cuts to after-school programs and school bus transportation. The Miami Herald reported that the Miami-Dade school district, for instance, is considering teacher layoffs for the first time and salary cuts to guidance counselors and maintenance workers to help close its budget hole that is estimated at over $100 million.
“It’s not cutting fat, it’s cutting into bone now,” said Ron Meyer, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association. He also found it troubling that school funding is cut while voucher programs that divert state funds to private schools are being expanded.
Advocates for public schools say at the same time their funding is cut, schools are being asked to do more, such as institute new testing requirements as part of the new teacher merit pay law.
“We have cut co many people out of the central office, at the same time you are adding more and more requirements,” Montford said. “Who is going to do it? Literally, who will do it?”
Republican lawmakers who helped craft the education budget, which cuts money for schools by $1.35 billion, say the money schools are losing will be partially offset by savings from requiring teachers and other school employees to contribute 3 percent toward their retirements and from federal stimulus dollars saved by districts from last year.
But school districts have used those federal stimulus dollars unevenly. Some districts spent it at the federal government’s urging, others spent some of it, and still other districts socked away most of it for next fiscal year.
Florida School Boards Association Executive Director Wayne Blanton doesn’t look favorably upon the changes to the Florida Retirement System that some lawmakers say is a “savings” for schools in the budget.
The way Blanton looks at it, the state is requiring school employees to use their own salaries to plug gaps in the budget, though he said he realizes without the changes to the retirement system “we would have been even more in the hole.”
Blanton said he would have preferred the Legislature look for other sources to plug the budget shortfall, such as a new Internet sales tax rather than look to the school employees themselves.
Meyer, the lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, said beyond the cuts to education, schools and teachers have been hit hard by changes to how they will be paid and awarded contracts as well as policies that funnel more kids it private schools.
“The super-majority of Republicans have been like kids in a candy store,” Meyer said. “They’ve just seen an opportunity here to do whatever they have been wanting to try in the past but hasn’t gotten through.”