A first-year teacher from Broward County is likely out of a job. But if that same teacher worked in Hillsborough County, his or her job would be safe.
The dust is starting to settle after months of lengthy public hearings, brutal negotiations and hand-wringing over the budgets of Florida’s 67 school districts. But the effect of this year’s budget shortfalls is felt differently across the state, with some districts cutting hundreds of teachers off their payroll and others only making minor adjustments.
Most school district boards start their budget writing process in April and finish by September.
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Due to the loss of federal stimulus dollars and a significant drop in funding from the state, districts statewide are grappling with budget shortfalls that range from a few million to upwards of $170 million.
The Legislature cut over $1 billion from education in this year’s budget, one of the largest cuts to education in the state’s history, amounting to a drop of almost 8 percent, or $542 per student. Before the cut, Florida was already near the bottom of the table in the United States in per-student funding.
“It’s a bigger cut coming on top of three or four more years of cuts and it’s obviously having a huge impact,” said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow. “It’s making it more difficult for our schools to serve our students and serve them well.”
Pudlow said teachers are in the budget-cutting bulls-eye this year, and that the cuts to school funding this year are “by far the biggest” in decades.
But Republican budget writers defended cutting the education budget as a necessary sacrifice with a tough economy and declining tax revenues. No part of the budget was left unscathed and education was shielded from the worst cuts, say lawmakers who helped crafted the education budget.
Still, districts were left with a buffet of unappetizing budget cutting choices, such as furloughs, layoffs and cuts to popular after-school programs, transportation and school safety officers.
The result: In Broward County, over 1,400 teachers are without a job. In Duval County, some sports programs are being eliminated, 87 teachers are being laid off, and bus service is curtailed. In Miami Dade County, the salaries of 400 top administrators, principals and assistant principals will be slashed. And in Marion County, the next academic year may bring with it longer school days and a four-day work week.
Flagler County budgeted for about a 3 percent cut in its $100 million budget, projecting a loss of some 40 teachers and reducing the school day by instructional 45 minutes, or three wees’ worth of school time. The school board also awarded a 2 percent raise to teachers and service employees. It originally resisted doing the same for top administrators. But it has decided to look at that issue again, as the board is divided between those who want administrators to get the raises and those who don’t.
Other districts, such as Orange County, were able to escape large budget shortfalls. That’s because Orange County passed a local property tax to bolster school funding. Hillsborough, where Tampa is located, was also able to whittle away at a $100 million budget shortfall without slashing jobs, the St. Petersburg Times reported. Districts were also able to use a windfall from the money they no longer had to contribute to the Florida Retirement System on behalf of their employees. That 3 percent cut out of employee’s wages translated into a 3 percent equivalent increase in districts’ revenue.
Factors that impact how much a school has to cut include whether or not the district saved any federal stimulus dollars, whether their enrollment numbers are rising or falling, and how much property taxes have declined.
Schools received about $1.2 billion in federal stimulus dollars. But districts received conflicting messages on whether to spend or save the money. Those that chose to save saw gentler budget shortfalls this year. Those that spent – such as Broward County – suffered larger budget cuts.
The size of the shortfall varies with each district.
Broward was one of the hardest hit school districts. The school had to lay off 1,400 teachers and nearly 600 district employees that included administrators, maintenance and clerical staff. The district is also considering furloughs, confirmed a district spokesman, but no decision has been made as to how many furlough days will be required.
Many of the laid-off Broward teachers were hired in the last two years with one-time funds provided through federal stimulus dollars.
In Marion County, perhaps one of the most controversial school budget cuts was the decision to move toward a four-day week in 2012. Initially the school board was considering a four-day week starting in 2011.
Spokesman Kevin Christian said the district has cut $51 million from its budget since 2007. This year, the district has to cut $24 million and has instituted hiring and spending freezes, is slashing department budgets and is considering cutting out substitute teachers, which would save the district $2 million annually.
“It’s not going to get any easier,” Christian said. “Quite honestly, next year I would be surprised if we did not do the four day week.” That decision is unpopular with some parents because it requires additional daycare.
Schools say they have been battered by years of difficult budget cuts and expect more next year.
Already, Christian said Marion County is bracing for a cut of another $8 million.
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive