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School district takes budget cuts on road

MANATEE — As promised, Manatee County school district officials are ready to take next school year’s budget cuts on the road.

In a concentrated effort to make the budget slashing process more transparent for parents, teachers and the community, Superintendent Tim McGonegal started a speakers bureau along with an online information hub. He also has scheduled a series of town hall meetings to talk about the cuts.

Facing its third year of budget cuts from the state, school officials anticipate slashing about $20 million from next school year’s operating budget.

This school year alone, board members have already trimmed more than $30 million from the district’s operating funds.

To prepare for next school year’s cuts, district officials compiled a list of 53 items — worth about $24 million — that could be slashed. They include slashing pay, school resource officers, field trips and reading coaches, among others.

“We are facing some astronomical challenges that affect citizens, parents and their children’s education,” said School Board Chairman Walter Miller. “What impacts them impacts the whole community. Our future is our children.”

But there is a shot of hope for the district’s budget woes in the federal stimulus package.

Not only are school districts in the nation getting a boost in existing federal programs for schools with low-income children and disabled students, the bill Congress passed Friday contains a stabilization fund intended to help public schools and municipalities balance their budgets.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Florida schools are estimated to get $2.2 billion in stabilization funds.

Florida would still have to get a waiver from U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan to get its share of the stabilization fund. To get the full amount, states must spend at least as much on education as they spent in 2006 — and Florida is about $600 million short because of previous budget cuts.

“We’re not sure how it’s going to help us yet,” McGonegal said. “We’re not sure how much we’re getting ... It should help our general fund to some degree.”

But this school year’s cuts do not appear to be over.

Districts in Florida may face another round of cuts before the school year is out. No one knows how much yet.

“There’s discussion in the Legislature that there may be another round of cuts during (this year’s legislative) session as they address more shortfall in revenues,” said Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association.

McGonegal said he hopes state lawmakers will spare public schools and look at other options such as dipping into the Lawton Chiles Trust Fund, money from a state tobacco lawsuit settlement.