By MATT CLARK
Monday, May 19, 2008
Lee County School District officials are discussing flexibility.
But it´s not the kind of flexibility the district´s 80,000 students learn about in physical education class; it´s the kind that could save some of its 11,000 employees their jobs.
At the Lee County School Board´s Monday evening meeting, board member Bob Chilmonik made a motion similar to one passed in Collier County to have the School Board pursue placing a referendum on the Aug. 26 primary election ballot. In short, the referendum would play a shell game with the district´s budget, moving funding normally set aside for the construction of schools over to operating budget expenses, among them school supplies and employee salaries and benefits.
“By doing that, I think we go a long way in protecting our employees,” Chilmonik told the board before making the motion. “It could certainly bring us a long ways in closing the gap on our financial problems.”
Chilmonik´s motion for the referendum failed due to lack of support.
If a similar motion passes, the referendum would create a new property tax, equal to $5 per $10,000 of a property´s value. Tax rates would not go up, however, because the School Board would counteract the tax increase by lowering another tax.
Through the new tax, the district would obtain more revenue for its operations budget, which has undergone massive cuts by the state this year and is expected to receive more cuts, threatening everything from high school football to music class.
By allowing more money to be moved to the operations side of the budget, the district would be able to keep its academic programs intact and avoid laying off more employees like it has already done with about 150 positions this year.
If only it was that simple.
In order to prevent a tax jump, the district´s capital budget, which is used to build and maintain schools, would be cut to counteract the increase. Superintendent James Browder told the board the referendum plan wouldn´t lead to the first cut for the capital budget this year. It would be the second.
In the state´s recently passed budget, it took millions in capital dollars away from the district to subsidize operating budgets at districts in other parts of the state. The move has put a strain on Lee County´s capital budget that would prevent it from pursuing the referendum idea, even though Browder and the School Board were at one time in favor of the move.
Browder said the referendum plan would dangerously reduce the amount of money the district has to pay loans it uses to build schools. Loan interest payments come from the district´s capital budget. Without the money to pay loans, the district could not continue to build schools and meet the demands of a class-size amendment voters passed in 2002, which mandates a certain amount of students in each class and forces the district to build more schools. Browder said the state didn´t provide $24 million it said it would for the class-size amendment, either.
“Doing this as a knee-jerk reaction right now is a damage to the capital plan,” Browder said. “I can´t borrow money if I take the flexibility.”
Mark Castellano, president of the union-affiliated Teachers Association of Lee County, said he is also against the move, which he sees as brought on by an irresponsible Legislature aimed at relieving itself of the K-12 education burden.
“You know, forgive me, but I don´t trust the state government,” Castellano said.
“I just don´t have any faith left that our state Legislature will do anything to help public education. I just don´t think that´s their goal.”
Pressure to pursue the referendum has come at the district from multiple directions, including from Raymond Rodrigues, Florida Gulf Coast University´s College of Arts and Sciences budget manager and the parent of a child at Orangewood Elementary. Rodrigues asked board members to consider the plan during an April 22 board meeting after hearing of the district´s financial problems and researching various solutions.
Rodrigues found similar proposals had passed in Walton and Monroe counties. At the time, Rodrigues spoke to the board, Collier County School Board members were still discussing the proposal they approved earlier this month.
Rodrigues sees two main problems with the referendum plan. One is getting the petition on the ballot; the deadline for doing so is about four weeks away, he said. The second problem is getting the voters to approve the petition.
“The voters have to trust the School Board so that they are going to offset the capital budget and trust the superintendent to use the funds to protect the classroom,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues disagrees with Browder´s concern with the plan. He said the district can put on hold its capital plan, because the once massive growth of the district has slowed, preventing the need for more schools.
“For the first time in the history of the Lee County School District, they lost students this year. I think the projections for next year are 2,000 students. We would only be replacing what we lost during this last school year. I think the immediate need for the additional schools is tied to the growing enrollment,” Rodrigues said.
But as Browder pointed out, there is growth in the district, especially in its east zone, where cheap housing has drawn families from more expensive parts of the county.
“If we start losing students,” Browder said, “we´re still going to need to build some schools in the next three years, simply because the east side is the only one that´s growing and there are a lot of things that we are going to have to look at.”
Either way, Browder said the proposal needs to be put on hold until the district´s financial future is more clear. The Legislature has promised to return next year the money it took from the district´s capital budget this year, Browder said.
“Before I take money out of capital and do anything with it, I´m going to be sure ... that I have done everything in my power to minimize costs so that we have a machine that´s operating as effectively as we can as we move forward in the next several years,” Browder said before mentioning the idea of going to a six-period day. “Because, ladies and gentlemen, I think we´re just beginning to see what we´re going to in the next several years.”
© Naples News