Miami Herald: South Florida school districts dread cuts

Mar 2, 2010

This article was published by the Miami Herald on March 2, 2010.

Local school district leaders are hoping this year’s legislative session will spare them deep cuts and costly new programs.


School districts have tried begging for money from state legislators. They’ve pleaded for mercy when it became clear that cuts were inevitable.

This year, as the economic pinch remains as tight as ever, some school leaders are singing a new tune:

“Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone,” said Broward Superintendent Jim Notter.

As the year’s legislative session begins Tuesday, school districts are bracing for more budget pain even as they ask lawmakers not to saddle them with new laws that might cost money.

“Hopefully, they won’t create additional mandates when the budget is so lean,” said Miami-Dade Schools AssistantSuperintendent Iraida Mendez-Cartaya.

Districts are also hoping that old mandates will be eased: They want the class size mandate that is supposed to tighten this year to stay where it is. They are also asking for a delay in a new high school grading system that is supposed to kick in this year. Both want the state to come up with a way to keep schools afloat after federal stimulus money runs out in June 2011.

The outlook is dreary. The two main revenue streams that fund school districts are in bad shape: Economists are expecting property values to drop by more than 13 percent this year. And revenue into the state continues to sag.

Gov. Charlie Crist has recommended that state legislators increase the budget for education. But already, the state House of Representatives is considering a 15 percent cut to spending on schools.

The Miami-Dade district will ask for an increase in education funding, Mendez-Cartaya said, pointing out that the amount of money the state allocates per student has risen by only 59 cents over the past six years.

“Our top priority is to really increase education funding on a per student basis,” she said.


But district lobbyists acknowledge that money is tight. State economists believe Florida will face a shortfall of between $1.1 billion to $3.2 billion this year. That could mean as much as a $150 million cut to the Miami-Dade district. Broward is anticipating cuts of about $80 million.

“The ultimate and the realistic hope is that we come out of there with as much funding as last year,” Mendez-Cartaya said.

Notter said he’s hoping the cut won’t be too deep.

“There’s only so much you can stop doing before you cut the heart of what you do and you might as well shut down,” he said.

State Sen. Rudy Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, said he was open to working with school districts when it came to funding. “This will be the most difficult year because of the lack of funding that we have,” Garcia said. “We’re going to have to be flexible.”

State Rep. Eric Fresen, a Republican from Miami, said the Legislature will need to juggle its funding of education, criminal justice and healthcare.

“Florida has to figure out a way to ensure that we prioritize,” he said.

The school districts also want to see a loosening of the restrictions on class size that go into effect this year.


Both districts have long supported legislation that limits class size, but stricter rules this year would cost millions that they don’t have.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the Miami-Dade district has not received a fair percentage of the state dollars set aside for class size reduction, given that it enrolls 15 percent of Florida’s students.

Notter said the proposed legislation “keeps the integrity of the original class size that was passed by the people of Florida.” It would give voters a chance to keep the restrictions at the school-wide average of 18 kids per class in pre-K through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth and 25 in high school. Individual class sizes could not go beyond 21 for the youngest kids, 27 in fourth through eighth and 30 in high school.

“Kids don’t come in 18 packs and 22 packs and 25 packs,” Notter said.


Broward school district lobbyist Georgia Slack said past reforms haven’t come with enough — or any — money to cover the expenses of putting them into action.

“Do not implement any new programs,” she said, characterizing the district’s position. “Every time you tell us these programs won’t cost any new money, they do.”

Miami-Dade will also ask the state to delay the start of the new high school grading system, which will incorporate Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs into the high school grading formula.

“We’re all behind the process and the new grading system,” Mendez-Cartaya said. “Again, it’s a function of timing. It would be very expensive to provide this kind of programming to all eligible children.”

Notter said Broward will also ask that the new grading formula not fully kick in this year.


Miami-Dade will also lobby the state to restore funding for building construction and maintenance, and to provide adequate teacher training when the new state standards are released.

Looking forward, South Florida school district officials said, the state needs to find a replacement for the federal stimulus dollars it used to plug the budget gap this year. The federal dollars will sunset in June 2011.

“They have in essence two years to figure out how to adequately fund public education,” Notter said.

Mendez-Cartaya also hopes state legislators will look beyond the next few budget years.

“The long-term solution is to look at the tax structure in the state of Florida,” she said. “We need a stable and recurring revenue source that can fund education at the high level that’s demanded by our constitution.”