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Schools short on cash for special education

The "Matrix'' system is blamed for multimillion-dollar budget deficits in Hllsborough and Pinellas.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY and KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2000


In Hillsborough County, the threat of a $10-million budget shortfall sent educators poring through countless files to find mistakes that might have cost them money for special education.

In Pinellas County, school principals are being asked to give back money out of their school budgets. They're contending with an estimated $12-million shortfall in special education money.

Around the state, an estimated $130-million shortfall in special education dollars has left educators scrambling to shore up their budgets and make sure disabled students get the services they need.

"We did a lot of work to get it down to about $3-million," said Mike Bookman, assistant superintendent for business for the Hillsborough County schools.

Many educators blame the problems on the state's 2-year-old system for paying for special education. Dubbed "The Matrix," it was designed to restore sanity to a program that was getting overly complex, paperwork-heavy and expensive.

Complaints about the Matrix system have been so persistent and widespread, some lawmakers are ready to scrap it altogether.

"Lawmakers are definitely frustrated," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "These are some of our most expensive programs, and you have to pay for them. They just don't know how. It looks like we're going to try something different."

The House Education Appropriations Committee, led by Rep. Stephen Wise of Jacksonville, would replace it with a very different system of paying for special education programs: block grants.

As the summary of the bill states, the House proposal would "establish a stable funding system" and would "free teachers from paperwork, allowing more time for teaching students."

Sounds great. But many educators are skeptical.

"That's what they said about the Matrix," said Chuck Rushe, assistant superintendent in charge of business for the Pasco County schools, which is about $4-million in the hole. "With the Matrix, they created a real monster. Block grants isn't solving the problem; it's avoiding the problem."

"We would welcome more flexibility, but the problem is they keep changing it," said Connie Milito, director of governmental relations for the Hillsborough County schools.

Many blame Matrix for the shortfall, suspecting that because the paperwork is so complicated, forms aren't getting filed to reimburse districts for services they have provided.

Hillsborough has whittled away much of its shortfall by going back into paperwork for special education students to make sure each was in the right category to receive the appropriate reimbursement from the state.

Pinellas County at one point faced a $20-million shortfall, and that has been reduced to an estimated $12-million.

The district is trying to offset that deficit by delaying some hires, though not among teachers, and by dipping into reserves.

Roughly $1-million is expected to come from the individual schools, which are being asked to return some discretionary money.

St. Petersburg High School Principal Linda Benware is cutting back on ordering library books, audio-visual supplies and little things like paper clips and pens. Teachers and administrators can forget about traveling to conferences. Her school has to give back $18,498.

And Susan Boyd at Fuguitt Elementary is going to have to do some budgetary soul-searching. Her school has to give back $7,318, and she's roughly $2,200 short. The district will help, but only after she gets down to a bare-bones budget.

"It's a big hit to our budget," Boyd said. "We pretty much will give everything back that we have (in the school's discretionary fund).

"We'll manage, but that will leave things very, very tight."

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