Manatee schools prep for more cuts

Eliminating elective classes, imposing furloughs might be fallout of election

nalund@bradenton.comNovember 4, 2010 

BRADENTON — Voters’ rejection of a local “critical needs” tax and statewide relief to ease public school class sizes could mean drastic steps for the Manatee County School District next year: eliminating some elective classes and employee furloughs.

Although Superintendent Tim McGonegal expressed disappointment in voters not approving the special tax, he said the district will move ahead.

“We don’t have the answers yet,” McGonegal said. “We’ll have a long list of possible items that can be cut from the budget. We’ll collect feedback and work with the board to boil it down. It’s not going to be easy.”

The district may not only eliminate electives like art and music, school officials say there could be more trimming: doing away with elementary school media specialists and school resource officers and making employees take furlough days.

“It’s certainly going to affect our ability to offer (elective classes),” district Assistant Superintendent of Finance Jim Drake said Wednesday. “Both of those issues go in concert with each other. The class size (rule) means we may have to hire more teachers for core subjects, which means we will have less ability to hire teachers for electives.”

Beginning this school year, classroom caps are set at 18 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high school.

Voters on Tuesday rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have loosened those limits. Of the 4,988,513 votes casts, the amendment had 54.5 percent support — less than the 60 percent super majority needed for passage.

Districts that don’t meet class-size limits face hefty fines for each child over the classroom cap — about $3,000 a student.

In Manatee, district officials this school year hired 65 extra teachers at a cost of $4 million in an effort to comply with class-size limits.

They’ve been bracing for about $500,000 in penalties because they say they cannot afford another $3.3 million to hire the more than 40 teachers they need to fully comply.

“If Amendment 8 had passed, we’d have been in good shape for the 2011-2012 school year,” Drake said.

On Wednesday, Drake spent the day looking over data in a more than 400-page preliminary report from the Florida Department of Education that included Manatee’s class size numbers listed school-by-school. He said he expected to know how much the district’s fines would be today or Friday.

“Part of the issue we’ll face, when kids aren’t in core classes, we’ve gotta have some place to put them,” Drake said. “So potentially what elective classes we do have will be larger and we won’t be able to offer as many. We’ll pretty much have to get back to basics. We can’t afford to do everything for everybody and be all things to all people.”

Some districts across the state have joined a lawsuit being initiated by the Florida School Boards Association to challenge the class-size penalties. McGonegal plans to have a recommendation to the school board as early as next month on whether the district should join the lawsuit.

A measure to allow the school district the option of raising taxes failed by a margin of 58.4 percent to 41 percent.

District officials say the 0.25-mill special tax would have helped the school district meet its operational costs. During the past two fiscal years, the district slashed $44 million from its operating budget. This year, it slashed another $9 million. The millage would have raised $6.4 million to offset a portion of the expected shortfall, district officials say.

On top of that, enrollment is up in the district by 1,110 students this year, thanks to more people moving into the area and more migrant and formerly private school students enrolling. There are 43,400 students in the district, up from last year’s population of 42,300.

The decision on where to cut costs will ultimately belong to the school board, which now has two new members — local attorney Karen Carpenter, who won the District 5 seat in the Aug. 24primary election, and Julie Aranibar, who on Tuesday unseated school board chair Jane Pfeilsticker for the District 3 seat. A budget committee member, Aranibar’s campaign focused on “making every dollar count.”

Regardless of the challenges ahead, McGonegal remains optimistic.

“You have to,” he said. “I think there will be some negative impacts to the quality of our programs, but we’ve got to get through this. The economy is not much better, and we have to live within our means.”

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