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Fed funds won’t save schools budget

BRADENTON — Regardless of the federal education stimulus, Manatee County school district officials say they may still have to shave $25 million off their operating funds over the next three years.

At best, the stimulus will help stave off even more severe cuts the district would be forced to make, said Superintendent Tim McGonegal after a school board budget workshop Monday.

Initially, the district was looking to cut $20 million from the 2009-10 operating budget because of a state tax revenue deficit.

Confident that Florida will qualify for federal help, McGonegal said the pain could be spread out over three years.

“That’s the best information we have now,” he said. “Both the House and the Senate in Florida has assumed that in their budget deliberations.”

There is still a hurdle — Florida officials still do not know whether they qualify for the stabilization portion of the federal stimulus money that can help districts shore up their troubled budgets and capital outlay coffers.

Because Florida has funded public schools below a certain level, the state was forced to apply for that part of the stimulus. If Florida’s application is approved, Manatee schools’ share of that would be $14 million.

District officials did not have a time line for the application process.

Florida will still qualify for the portion that helps the existing federal special education program and schools with a high population of low-income students. For Manatee, that works out to about $9 million in two years.

Aside from that, the outlook remains grim for Florida schools. The state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimates revenue collections to be down almost $6 billion from 2007-08. Statewide property values are estimated to decrease by 12 percent, or $219 million.

Both senate and house preliminary budget proposals differ on how much revenue and cuts Manatee has to make, said Jim Drake, assistant superintendent of finances.

The senate proposal allows districts to choose whether they want to participate in a program that lets them shift capital funds to operating funds.

The move would pump $1 million into Manatee schools’ operating funds, but would take away $5 million from its capital budget, he said.

Depending on how many and which districts are involved and a Florida law that equalizes funding for all districts, Manatee may end up losing money, McGonegal said.

The House proposal contains a $14.5 million cut to Manatee schools, but Drake said House representatives have not been exactly accurate in their previous revenue projections.

Regardless of the proposals, Drake said the district would still look to cut $20 million from next school year’s operating funds “just to be ultra conservative.”

In terms of student growth, a preliminary projection shows Manatee schools gaining 16 students next year, which still puts the total enrollment at about 42,000 students.

The district may not hire new teachers next year though it will set aside $700,000, enough funds for 12 teaching positions, in case it enrolls more students after the new school year starts this fall, Drake said.

“We have to be as precise as we can because we can’t over-allocate to our schools,” he said.

Teachers on annual contracts will find out by April 15 whether they will still have a job.