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At Braden River, talking cuts with school leaders

EAST MANATEE — In the midst of economic turmoil, the Manatee County School District turned to the community in a town hall meeting for ideas about how to handle budget cuts.

At Braden River High School on Thursday, school officials fielded questions and concerns from parents and others.

So far this school year, funding for Manatee County’s Public Schools has been cut $30 million and it appears the district is in line for an additional $20 million cut for the 2009-2010 school year, said Manatee County school Superintendent Tim McGonegal.

Despite the budget cuts, McGonegal vowed that Manatee County will make do with reduced funds and still achieve the mission of the school district to educate students. Manatee County looks to the state for funding, which is required by Florida’s Constitution to fund high quality education.

“We’re really hurting our community long-term without a higher quality system of public education,” he said.

Over the next two years, Manatee County could receive about $34 million of the federal economic stimulus to go toward the district’s general fund. But one condition to receive the funding is that the states are required to fund education at the same level as in 2006, said Jane Pfeilsticker, vice chair for the Manatee County school board.

As evidence of the state’s failure to properly fund education, Florida is one of four states — including California, Texas and Nevada — that does not meet that criteria, Pfeilsticker said. In order to receive the funding, the state must apply to waive the condition.

“Florida is so not stepping up to bat when it comes to funding education,” she said in an interview following the meeting.

Mark Lewis, a Manatee County parent, was concerned about how the district was managing to balance spending in middle and upper management with classroom funds. Money, he said, needs to be spent in the classrooms to ensure that teachers give students the attention they need.

“It’s really that one-on-one time with the students,” he said.

About 68 positions were cut at the district office in June and about 25 more positions are vacant, McGonegal said. He plans to further evaluate the situation, carefully considering whether any positions should be refilled or if others should be cut.

Not all parents were distressed about the situation.

John Bowman, who had previously lived in California, had faith in the Manatee County School District to handle the problems.

“I’m very impressed with what you guys have done with the little amount of money,” he said.

Linda Neely, a parent at Braden River Middle School and SAC member, said that the county is doing a good job, but things could be better. Even though the county looks to the state to provide funding, the county has not managed to fully fund the teacher’s needs.

“When are we going to see our teachers totally funded for supplies they need in the classroom?” she said. “We gotta find the money somewhere.”

Manatee County parent Jeanne Henrich advocated a needs-based tax system. Henrich, who previously lived in Pennsylvania, said at the time she did not like the idea of raising taxes to fund education. But given the circumstances of today’s crisis, she believes that raising taxes may be the answer to the shortfall in Manatee County.

“When it comes to our kids,” she said. “This is where you make the sacrifice.”

Jessica Klipa, Herald staff reporter, can be reached at 708-7906.