Waiting for help for Florida’s education budget? Don’t hold your breath.
The state’s leaders were counting on more than $3 billion from a federal stimulus package to provide relief for an already wheezing statewide budget, but the state may not qualify for the funds because the Legislature has cut the budget too much. Florida’s elected officials are scrambling in Washington, hoping to get a waiver in the Senate stimulus bill that will allow Florida to qualify for the much-needed money for education.
Few counties are feeling the pinch more than Gadsden County, where Schools Superintendent Reginald James says there’s not much left to cut. The school district is facing the elimination of 50 to 60 positions.
“I hate to use the word devastated, but that’s pretty much what it is,” he said. “There’s just so much you can do. We have survived this year primarily on the concessions of our employees who were willing to give up five days’ pay, pay insurance increases and forego a step increase to keep people working. These concessions include me. However, with an even deepening recession and declining state revenue, which is the primary funding stream for Gadsden County schools, reality is about to set in.”
James said he has been told that next year, the district’s budget will be reduced again, and he is currently aiming for a 5 percent reduction. The district must establish a minimum 3 percent fund balance. This equates to a $3.5 million revenue shortfall for the upcoming year.
“It is tough to reduce a budget by that amount through only employee concessions,” James said. “To achieve that amount, it will require some staff reductions. I don’t want to be in this position, but if you’ve got to make up that much money, you’ve got to do some things.”
James added that to put into perspective the affect of the state’s revenue shortfall on Gadsden County, one should consider that the district’s budget has declined from $51 million o $46 million over the past 18 months – and is still declining.
But during a recent meeting of superintendents in Tallahassee, James said the buzz was that budget cuts could go even deeper.
“When we had the superintendents meeting, they were saying cuts could be as much as 10 percent,” he said. “Everybody just got up and started walking around. That’s just stupid; it’s ridiculous.”
He said the reality of the situation set in for him last Friday, as he reviewed President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill, and realized the language would keep Florida from qualifying for stabilization funding for education. These funds will restore general funding to school districts.
The state does currently qualify for federal grant funding in Title I, IDEA and construction funds, but not for general education funding, which is critical to the state’s schools and universities.
James said a committee is being formed to work on more ideas for budget cuts, and he is confident and hopeful that those educational leaders will be able to bring ideas to the table that won’t mean closed schools or more job losses.
In the meantime, he has his fingers crossed regarding the stimulus package.
“We can only hope and pray that someone in the United States Senate changes the bill to allow Florida to be eligible to receive general education funding,” James said. “Without this funding, the impact on public education in Florida could be devastating. Gadsden County schools will be forced to take the route many other school districts in Florida are taking and begin the difficult process of closing schools and reducing its workforce.”
James calls these cuts his “last shot.”
“This is my last resort, my best shot,” he said. “I am fed up. Put it out there. I want the people to get upset and call somebody. We just can’t do any more.”