By Marc Freeman
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
May 8, 2008
Money is disappearing for Palm Beach County schools like never before, according to a gloomy financial forecast for the upcoming school year.
“We´re in uncharted territory here,” Chief Financial Officer Michael Burke told the School Board on Wednesday. “This is the first time our operating budget will actually decrease from one year to the next.”
Florida lawmakers Friday adopted a state budget that cut $332.3 million for education, including a $33.3 million reduction for county classrooms. That´s a 2.7 percent decline from last year´s $1.24 billion allotment.
Local officials have relied on amounts between $35 million to $99 million extra per year since 2001 to pay for opening dozens of new schools, lowering class sizes, giving employee raises and dealing with higher operating costs.
But just how the school system will balance its operating budget and cope without any new state money remains to be seen. The School Board and district administration will hold meetings over the next five months to address the budget.
“Clearly we are going to have to tighten our belts,” Superintendent Art Johnson said Wednesday. “We´re putting the classroom resources first.”
The administration plans, in part, to eliminate an unidentified number of positions and shift employees to different posts as needed.
Johnson recently told the district´s 22,000 employees that he´d protect them from layoffs “during these turbulent times.” He also vowed to try to avoid pay cuts.
Yet the funding shortfall could mean small or no raises for county teachers, an ominous sign for salary negotiations set to begin today.
According to a district report, county schools will receive a state funding cut of nearly $117 per student, from $7,365 to $7,248. The loss of state dollars for next year follows two mid-year funding cuts of $25 million; per student funding was $7,639 just nine months ago.
As a result, the district began a hiring freeze on non-classroom jobs, suspended employee travel except under certain circumstances and got special permission to pay for property insurance out of its capital budget.
Along with the state funding cuts, the district is dealing with escalating gasoline and insurance costs, greater expenses from opening three elementary schools in August and the impact of lower interest earnings, Burke said. The sum of the higher costs is still being determined.
Money is also expected to decrease for the district´s capital budget, which pays for construction, technology, transportation and maintenance.
The district is expecting to collect only $271.7 million from local property tax collections for capital spending, a $66.3 million drop from previous estimates, because of a projected 4 percent drop in property values and restrictions imposed by the state.
In more bad news, officials say they expect more education funding cuts perhaps in December, and then again a year from now, because of the state´s steadily declining tax revenues.
“There is every expectation we will face another reduction for 2009-10,” said Vernon Pickup-Crawford, the school district´s lobbyist. “We have no idea how long this is going to continue. I hope like heck I´m wrong.”
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