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Manatee school officials, parents call out for budget saving tips

BRADENTON — As the Manatee County School District kicked off its budget planning today, district leaders and some concerned parents are reaching out to residents to help brainstorm a savings plan for the upcoming 2010-11 school year.

Superintendent Tim McGonegal announced that the district has developed an interactive Web site for residents to suggest cost-saving measures and that, starting this month, town hall meetings will begin taking place.

The first one set for Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

“This is the beginning of the process and we want people involved, to go to our Web site and make suggestions,” McGonegal announced during a press conference at the district’s School Support Center on Manatee Avenue.

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

District finance leaders say the district could see an additional cut of $6 million to $15 million for the upcoming 2010-2011 school year.

McGonegal said 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, he said.

The state budget developed during the legislative session which starts Tuesday and runs through April will ultimately determine the scope of cuts in the district.

Also today 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 today’s press conference.

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

As she addressed the media she stood beside mom 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 on March 20 at 2 p.m. 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 Web site, as well as addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses for local legislators.

A sample letter to a lawmaker 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 what could be a different story,” McGonegal said.

Those teachers, he said, are now only being hired for one-year contracts.

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