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School officials ask for public input on budget

PALMETTO — Manatee County schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal promised he didn’t want next school year’s budget to surprise anyone.

On Tuesday, he tried to engage parents, teachers and taxpayers in the first of six town hall meetings he has planned for the next few weeks.

“It’s important we take part in this process and inform you about budget,” McGonegal said.

School Board Member Bob Gause agreed.

“We want to talk about education funding,” Gause said at the start of the meeting. “We learned over the last year, people don’t understand how our budgets are put together. This is a way to try and educate the public and solicit your comments.”

Manatee schools had already cut $30 million this school year because of a state revenue shortfall.

Next year could be worse, school district administrators say, with the struggling finance and housing markets and increasing unemployment.

To anticipate more cuts to the district’s operating budget, administrators put together a brochure listing 53 items totalling $24 million from which the school board can choose to cut. But how much should be slashed remains unclear.

“We don’t have a target amount for that,” McGonegal said.

During the meeting, which was attended by about 20 parents and residents, officials also explained how Florida finances public schools.

Assistant Superintendent Jim Drake explained how state lawmakers in 1973 tried to equalize funding for each district, regardless of the size of its tax base or the number of students.

All districts receive the same amount of funding for students, which is about $6,000 a student.

Sue Revell, a parent and Palmetto High school advisory council member, wanted to know how many people are retiring at the end of the school year and whether the savings from those vacated positions could be used to hire more people.

“Can we get two for the price of one?” especially when the higher-paid staff leaves, she wondered.

District administrators review each vacant position Thursdays, he said. Each teaching position is filled with a long-term substitute.

He added that 175 district employees planned to retire this year and that succession plans are being put in place.

“One of our strategic objectives is to prepare new leaders,” he said. “We have a group of experienced leaders, we have to get them ready.”