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Schools budget team faces rough road

BRADENTON -- Manatee residents, teachers and students can expect to see more of the school district’s budget committee in the next three months.

The 34-member committee met last week to start planning for the 2011-12 budget year. The group faces the daunting task of bringing budget recommendations to Manatee County Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal. And the timing couldn’t be more critical.

About $46 million has been cut from the district’s operational budget in the last three years; 130 jobs have been eliminated. And district officials have to make ends meet for the coming year without the anticipated $6 million from the critical needs tax voters rejected in November.

“We’re going to take this as an opportunity to reorganize,” budget committee chairwoman and school board member Julie Aranibar said.

When the tax was defeated, a disappointed McGonegal said the district would have to consider everything from eliminating some elective classes to employee furloughs to get finances in line. “We don’t have the answers yet,” McGonegal said. “We’ll have a long list of possible items that can be cut from the budget. We’ll collect feedback and work with the board to boil it down. It’s not going to be easy.” The district may have to eliminate electives like art and music, or do away with elementary school media specialists and school resource officers.

The budget committee, compiled of 50 percent school staffers and 50 percent community members, will visit different schools, review departments and analyze organizational charts and data from the state’s 67 other school districts.

All of this will be done to determine how to save the most money for the district, Aranibar said.

“This is not a witch hunt,” she added.

“This is not a gotcha. There will be no across-the-board cuts.”

Instead, she said, her committee will review data-driven information to determine “reorganizational structure and savings.”

Prior to the Manatee County school system’s winter break, Associate Superintendent of Finance Jim Drake outlined options the budget committee may have to consider, including eliminating unused electives and cutting more positions.

Those options haven’t changed, Drake said, but nothing has been finalized.

The recommendations are in the committee’s hands.

“This gives them the opportunity to see how complex running a school district is,” Drake said.

Aranibar said the budget committee meetings will be advertised and broadcast online.

“We have some departments that exist today that didn’t exist five years ago. I expect to ... shift some resources,” Aranibar said.

She suggested that residents offer input on the school district’s website at www.manateeschools.net.

Angeline Taylor, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 745-7095.

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