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Schools seek ways to save money

BRADENTON — As the Manatee County School District kicked off its budget planning this week, district leaders and some local education advocates are asking residents to help brainstorm a savings plan for the upcoming 2010-11 school year.

Superintendent Tim McGonegal announced that the district has developed a special section on its Web site for residents to suggest cost-saving measures and to reach out to lawmakers during the legislative session that starts today.

Also, starting this month town hall meetings will begin taking place. The first one is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the district’s administration building on Manatee Avenue West.

“This is the beginning of the process and we want people involved, to go to our Web site and make suggestions,” McGonegal announced Monday during a press conference.

This year the district is working with a $708 million budget.

The district has already cut $44 million from its annual operating budget over the past two school years. That number would have been higher had the district not received $15 million in federal stimulus money.

District finance leaders say the district could have to cut an additional $6 million to $15 million for the upcoming school year.

The additional budget cut is the result of reduced state sales tax collections and decreasing property tax values, as well as potential cost increases in Florida Retirement premiums, health insurance premiums, step increases for employees and unemployment costs, McGonegal said.

The state budget developed during the legislative session, which runs through April, will ultimately determine the size of the cuts in the district.

Also Monday, McGonegal encouraged residents to get involved in Fund Education Now, an Orlando-based advocacy group concerned about cuts in education funding. It was created by parents to inspire and empower voters to advocate on behalf of Florida’s children, according to Kathleen Oropeza, one of the group’s co-founders who spoke at the press conference.

“We are really Davids against a big Goliath,” Oropeza said.

As she addressed the media, Oropez stood beside Christine Sket, who heads up the Manatee branch of the group.

“I’m here because I’m worried about the future of public education in Florida,” Sket said. “There is no way our schools can continue to operate without affecting the quality of education for our children.”

Sket said a town hall meeting for interested residents will take place at 2 p.m. March 20 at the YMCA in Parrish.

“We’ll be looking at you using your freedom of speech, and teaching you how to get involved with the right people in the legislature,” Sket said.

Links to the group are on the school district’s Web site, as well as addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses for local legislators.

A sample letter to send to lawmakers is also available on the site.

Sket said the group’s goal is to prevent the district from losing elective classes or teachers.

McGonegal said he does not expect employee layoffs during the next school year.

“Because of the class-size amendment, we do not anticipate losing teachers during the next school year.

“But what teachers are teaching, that could be a different story,” McGonegal said.