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    Budget cuts pass the buck to local schools

    Local districts are pawing through programs, looking for nickels and dimes as they trim for leaner days.

    By Associated Press
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 13, 2001

    A week after Florida lawmakers took $300-million in local school money out of the state budget, school districts across the state are deciding what to cut or how to make up the difference.

    In Sarasota, the School Board is hoping to persuade voters to approve a property tax increase that would raise an additional $25-million annually for county schools. On Tuesday it set a special election for March 19.

    In Port Orange, an announcement Tuesday that Volusia County high schools would switch to a cost-cutting six-period daily class schedule instead of seven ignited a protest of more than 1,000 students Wednesday.

    The students gathered in a courtyard of Atlantic High School after first period, refusing to return to class until their concerns were heard. After about an hour administrators persuaded most to return to class while 50 student leaders met with school and district administrators to discuss the change.

    Volusia expects to save between $1.5-million and $2-million by going to a six-period day, because about 40 fewer teachers will be needed.

    Volusia schools received a $7.6-million cut in state funding this year, and district officials expect another $6-million cut next year.

    Elsewhere, the Alachua County School Board is considering reducing summer school and staff development and delaying school construction projects to make up for a $4-million cut.

    Indian River County schools plan to reduce supplies, delay technology purchases and cut some staff training to make up a $2-million cut.

    Miami-Dade County school officials were meeting Wednesday night to decide how to make up for $81-million in state cuts. The district is considering draining about a quarter of its reserves, or $7-million, to help make up the difference. Another plan would call for all employees to take a three-day unpaid leave, which would save $25-million.

    In Sarasota, the School Board unanimously approved asking voters to increase property taxes $1 for every $1,000 in taxable value for the next four years.

    The school district faces a budget shortfall of $34-million over three years, said Superintendent Wilma Hamilton. If voters reject the tax increase, district officials predict increased class sizes and fewer art and music classes.

    "This community did not hire me to dismantle the Sarasota County schools piece by piece," Hamilton said. "They hired me to sustain excellence. And the only way to do that in the state of Florida is to solve the financial problem locally."

    Hamilton said the money could be used to hire more teachers, offer employee raises and revive programs, such as after-school tutoring, that have been shut down.

    Sarasota County voters rejected a similar property tax increase last year.

    Lawmakers finished a special legislative session last week and cut just more than $1-billion from the state budget written last spring. The session was called because the economy has slumped, and forecasts of tax income have diminished.

    Gov. Jeb Bush plans to sign the bill today.

    Feeling the pinch

    School districts across Florida are looking for ways to make up for budget shortfalls. Here are some of the plans under consideration to save money or cut costs:

    Sarasota County: Hopes to persuade voters to approve a property tax increase.

    Volusia County: Will cut high school class schedule from seven periods to six periods.

    Alachua County: Considers reducing summer school and staff development and delaying construction projects.

    Indian River County: Plans to reduce supplies, delay technology purchases and cut some staff training.

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    Lucy Morgan

    From the Times state desk