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Educators join debate on cuts
Local legislators say they're glad to hear from school officials, even if they don't agree.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 23, 2007
LAND O'LAKES - The Pasco School Board and superintendent have yet to discuss where they might cut the district's budget when lawmakers make Florida's money woes official.
They have, however, offered the local legislative delegation some ideas, a few of which seem to be gaining some momentum as September's special session nears. Perhaps emblematic of how difficult the situation might be, though, Pasco's House and Senate members have cottoned to different ideas.
Sen. Mike Fasano doesn't care much for the recommendation to give districts flexibility in using class-size reduction funds. It's simply a matter of pay now or later for something the Constitution requires, he says.
But he sees merit in protecting high-growth counties such as Pasco, Hernando and Hillsborough from cuts at a time when more and more kids keep showing up.
It's not the districts' fault, Fasano said, and they shouldn't suffer unnecessarily so larger districts with shrinking populations such as Miami-Dade can have more than their share. He has set up a conference call with superintendent Heather Fiorentino and Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Stephen Wise to talk about this angle on Friday.
"We're trying to come up with ways to lessen the impact on high-growth counties," he said. "They have to keep up."
Delegation chairman Rep. John Legg, who sits on the House Schools and Learning Council, said he has gotten favorable feedback from his chairman about the notion of giving districts some wiggle room in how they use class-size money.
"That is something we are interested in," Legg said, noting the idea might come up in committee meetings that begin in two weeks. "Perhaps we can give districts that are playing by the rules and that have a plan in place ... a little flexibility."
He was taken aback by the district's three-page list of state projects that are new or member-driven initiatives, which Fiorentino suggested as areas to look at for cuts before slashing school operating budgets.
But Legg was willing to consider some, though not all, of the line items.
"Some of them have merit for cutting," he said. "But some of the others ... we'd be cutting our nose to spite our face."
Fasano, for his part, said he appreciated the district's willingness to talk about funding.
"I don't believe other local officials should be telling us what to cut in Tallahassee," he said. "I would never go to the School Board and tell them to cut this person's salary ... or that project."
Fiorentino said she never intended to tell anyone what to do. The district simply wanted to make suggestions that differed from the Department of Education's recommendations, she said.
"The DOE provided ways to the Legislature on how to cut the budget. They concerned me," said Fiorentino, who served in the House before becoming superintendent. "They want to cut (per-student funding). When you start to hurt the funding that comes in with each kid, it's an easy fix ... but it also hurts the classroom."
She figured it would do less damage to delay initiatives that haven't begun, or to eliminate projects that don't directly touch students, than to make across the board cuts. Student busing, for instance, hardly can withstand a hit, as the state only reimburses 60 percent of the cost and the service is mandatory for many children, Fiorentino noted.
Legg and Fasano both said they welcomed the discussion before session, rather than after all the deals are done.
Implementation will be hard, they agreed, as education makes up a big piece of the state budget, and every dollar untouched there simply will have to come from somewhere else.
School Board vice chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said she hoped for the best from this bad situation.
"The school district will be in dire straits if we have a 5 to 10 percent budget cut," Starkey said. "We're hopeful that funding education will be a priority in Tallahassee and that every effort will be made to minimize the disruption to the education system."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.