Diminished Broward school budget passes first test

Aug 5, 2009

With little discussion and much resignation, Broward School Board members signed off Thursday night on the first draft of the district’s much diminished budget.

”We are hurting our children,” Chairwoman Maureen Dinnen said before the 5-0 vote. ”There is no way around it.”

No other board member commented on the budget. Four members were absent.

The tentative $3.58 billion proposal, which takes into account spending for day-to-day operations and big-ticket capital projects, is about $1.5 billion less than last year’s $5 billion budget.

It includes very little money for school construction, maintenance and technology — and no funds for teacher raises.

The district is still negotiating a contract with the Broward Teachers Union for the upcoming school year. The union has asked for a 3-percent raise as of July 1 and a 4-percent increase as of Jan. 1, 2010. The district has proposed no raise and a three-day unpaid furlough.

Only a handful of residents attended Thursday’s meeting, and none spoke.

The school district faced a $158 million operating budget shortfall this year, which it blamed on falling property values and a decline in funding from the state — $130 million over the past two years.

The district trimmed its expenses last year, but it spared Broward schools and employees a bigger hit by using $102 million in one-time reserves to cushion the blow.

Now the district has to close that funding gap without the reserves it put to use last year.

Federal stimulus money has fended off worse cuts, Schools Superintendent Jim Notter has said.

”I feel that the budget that’s presented makes effective and efficient use of the very limited resources provided to us from Tallahassee,” he said Thursday, before asking the public to put pressure on the state to focus on education.

School Board members in Miami-Dade, which faced a $166 million shortfall, gave preliminary approval earlier this week to a $4.8 billion budget that makes some cuts and forgoes teacher raises — but also includes no layoffs and more rainy-day fund money.

To balance its budget, the Broward district pared the school and central office budgets by 4 percent, saving about $68 million.

Those cuts, along with declining student enrollment, were partly to blame for almost 400 teachers losing their jobs last month — though the district has since rehired 170 of them.

An additional 19 resigned or declined moves to other positions.

Other cuts include closing an administrative office, eliminating some district-level jobs and scaling back several middle school sports programs.

Taking most of the hit from the budget ax is funding for capital projects, which plummeted from almost $2.6 billion last year to $1.1 billion this year. The district scrapped dozens of school construction, maintenance and technology projects that it can no longer afford.

Last month, Notter and the board rejected an idea to raise taxes to save some of those expensive projects after realizing the extra money would not be enough to back hefty construction loans.

The property tax rate for schools will still go up by a hair, from $7.42 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property value to $7.43. Schools officials attributed the increase to state lawmakers raising the required minimum tax levy for school districts.

Despite the tiny increase in the rate, the district will receive $127 million less in property taxes than it did last year due to falling home values, financial chief Ben Leong said.

School taxes are the biggest portion of a Broward homeowner’s tax bill, about 37 percent. Miami-Dade tentatively raised its rate to $8 from $7.80.

The budget will not be finalized until after a second hearing scheduled for Sept. 3.