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Byrd criticizes letter sent by superintendent

The House speaker says a letter sent to Hillsborough principals from the superintendent is inaccurate.

STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 1, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - An angry House Speaker Johnnie Byrd accused Hillsborough school officials Wednesday of misleading parents with a letter warning that the House budget could force $54-million in cuts to local school programs.

"That is a shameful thing to do," Byrd said.

The letter, signed by Superintendent Earl Lennard, was sent to principals Friday for use in school newsletters. If the House budget passed, Lennard said, many cuts would be considered, including fewer teacher aides, guidance counselors and services for severely emotionally disabled students.

"Our goal is to live within our means," Lennard wrote, quoting a pet phrase of Byrd's. "However, we cannot completely meet that goal given the dollars currently allocated."

Byrd said the proposed House budget, now dead because of a collapse of budget talks, would have given Hillsborough about $50-million more.

School officials said that is not enough to cover fixed costs such as insurance and electricity, the addition of 5,000 students next year, and the first-year costs of the class-size initiative.

A similar message was put forth by Deputy Superintendent Jim Hamilton at a Tuesday press conference at the Capitol, where some school board members wore buttons reading "Stack 'em deep and teach 'em cheap." The board members said they preferred a higher Senate budget, several hours before budget negotiations collapsed.

"We will spend less and have less, based on the appropriations bill that has passed the House," Hamilton said.

Byrd opened a news conference by waving a copy of Lennard's letter, calling it "inaccurate" and "one-half of the story." He called it an example of how "government schools hold a gun to the head of some program and threaten to pull the trigger unless they get more money."

Byrd's budgeting priorities this session have managed to anger, among others, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, university presidents, bankers, home builders and now, even his hometown school board.

School Board member Candy Olson took issue with Byrd's criticism.

"I think the speaker is a very bright man, but I don't think he has quite the understanding of our budget that he thinks he does," Olson said. "He's someone who would really like to see almost no government spending of any kind, and that may be coloring his view."

School district spokesman Mark Hart said the letter was "informational, not political" and did not issue a call to action to parents or teachers.

"We are getting more money, but our costs are exceeding the money we're getting," Hart said.

- Times staff writer Logan Mabe contributed to this report.

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