Leading Question

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2008

The Sarasota and Manatee school districts cut a combined $54 million from their budgets last spring, and they are bracing for more cuts during the 2008-2009 school year. So far, both districts are managing to mitigate the impact on the classroom.   

Still, students pouring out of yellow buses the first day of school will note a few missing faces. In Sarasota, some guidance counselors and home liaisons were reassigned or returned to the classroom, while some school resource officers and assistant coach positions were eliminated. Schools with declining enrollment lost teachers or vice principals. Manatee’s reading coaches will be available to fewer students, and teachers will have less access to roving technical support and coaching.

Sarasota’s high schoolers won’t be able to take driver’s ed during school hours—the district will offer it after school or over the summer—and their summer school options will be limited to required courses. Manatee will consolidate athletic program travel, transporting teams to fewer out-of-district sporting events, and cut field trips.  Manatee has also set its classroom thermostats two degrees higher to save more than $1 million in energy costs. Elective courses, such as business or P.E., may have less elbow room as teaching staff is cut back.

But for the most part, students won’t be crowded into larger classes, usually a first resort for districts seeking to balance budgets during lean years.  Florida’s voters passed a constitutional amendment limiting class size in 2002, and districts have been meeting their schoolwide student/teacher ratios since 2003.

This school year, the law was to be implemented at the classroom level, but districts were allowed to retain schoolwide ratios for another year. By 2010-11, core courses (reading and language arts, math, social studies, science, foreign language, self-contained classrooms and ESE and ESOL) will have a ratio of one teacher to 18 students for pre-K through kindergarten, 22 students for fourth through eighth grade, and 25 students for ninth through 12th grade.

Sarasota district employees are forgoing raises, paying for family health insurance coverage and taking fewer paid professional development days.  ManateeCounty’s support staff is taking a on1 percent to 2 percent pay cut. At press time, Manatee’s teachers were still negotiating their contract, but the proposed budget froze teachers’ pay. Both districts are making do with fewer professional support staff.

However, Sarasota and Manatee retained art and music, athletic programs, transportation routes and access to technology at levels very close to what they were in [2007-08CK]. The greater budget worry, says Sarasota School Board Chair Kathy Kleinlein, is, “Where will it end?”

Both districts anticipate another “hold back” from the state in January due to lower-than-budgeted sales tax collections. Sarasota expects to cut $10 to $15 million more mid-year, and Manatee up to $9 million. Local property and sales tax income will be reduced by the millions next year as well.

District staff and administrators are shouldering the bulk of the burden this year, but they’re very worried about challenging years to come. Sarasota’s superintendent of schools Lori White says, “As we have to go deeper into our reductions, it will become more difficult to protect the classroom.”

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