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Schools told to brace for 4% cut

An Education Department official predicts a loss of state aid not quite as severe as feared.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published July 11, 2007


School superintendents had heard the rumors for weeks: With state revenue estimates down more than $1-billion, school district budgets stood to take a hit of as much as 5 percent.

They got the sobering news from Deputy Education Commissioner Linda Champion early Tuesday. All districts should brace for a 4 percent loss of state funding, perhaps as soon as a September special legislative session, Champion told district leaders during a conference call.

"This was a recommendation for some type of fiscally conservative plan by the school districts during these intervening months," Champion explained later. "It's trying to exercise an abundance of caution here until we know what actions can be taken."

Pinellas superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he was concerned, but his staff had to crunch numbers first.

"Certainly it will impact our districts," said Bill Montford, executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "But we understand, because public education takes up such a large portion of the state budget ... the state cannot handle such a big reduction without having some impact on us."

Though the notion of cutting back already tight budgets doesn't go down easily, Montford added, the warning came at a relatively good time. Most districts have not completed their spending plans for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, and most have not finished negotiating new contracts with their employees.

As recently as 2001, districts learned of significant revenue cuts much later in the fiscal year and had to make adjustments on the fly.

"It's certainly not too early, but it's definitely better today than tomorrow," Montford said.

Area district officials said it was premature to know exactly what areas will get cut. One thing was certain, though: "We're going to stay out of the classroom," Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said, echoing comments from others.

"We're not going to affect what's happening in getting our schools opened, getting our schools equipped," Elia said.

Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino told her School Board that she would postpone all employee negotiations relating to money until after the state's Aug. 1 revenue estimating conference. She also planned to revise her presentation for the next day's budget workshop.

"We kind of figured something was happening ... so we've been extremely frugal," said Fiorentino, who sent chief financial officer Olga Swinson to "start looking" immediately after the conference call with the state.

Hernando finance officer Deborah Bruggink planned to visit Tallahassee next week to get more details from Champion. In the meantime, she said, she would look at ideas such as freezing vacant positions and cutting travel as ways to begin to make ends meet.

As for negotiations, Bruggink added, "We're going to be pretty darned cautious."

Staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com, (813) 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614.