2/27/08

Teachers union faces huge dues hit

Florida state lawmakers are poised to slash more than $350 million from schools - forcing layoffs in some districts before the end of the school year in June - in an effort to balance the current year's budget, shrunken by withering sales-tax collections. Schools, community colleges and universities will take the brunt of the $542 million in proposed cuts lawmakers want to make for the budget year that ends June 30. Other areas hit hard include state attorneys and public defenders, county and circuit courts, county health departments and juvenile justice programs.

Broward and Miami-Dade officials say they will manage without layoffs. But at other school districts, staff cuts will be inevitable, said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the teachers' union.

"We expected the Legislature would probably do something like this," he said. "It's unfortunate there wasn't a way to prevent it."

Gov. Charlie Crist called the House and Senate proposals "unfortunate" and repeated his recommendations to lawmakers to dip into reserve accounts and use one-time cash from the state's rainy-day fund to avoid making cuts. For the budget year that begins July 1, the governor has proposed a budget that adds $1 billion to schools by relying on higher property tax revenues and new state lottery games.

"This is just the beginning of the process," Crist said. "Everything that we can do in a responsible way to utilize rainy-day funds and get us to a bridge to a brighter future for Florida is the way to go."

House and Senate leaders agreed to the cuts this week and will take up the actual reduction bills on Monday, the eve of the 2008 regular session, and pass them by the second week of March.

Schools account for 66 percent of the latest budget cut because it's late in the fiscal year and school budgets depend heavily on sales-tax revenue, which has been sinking below expectations for months. Nearly half of the $28 billion the state collects from general revenue -- primarily sales taxes -- goes to schools.

Legislators have already cut $1.1 billion from the 2007-08 spending plan, but the declining revenues and sluggish economy have forced them to take another whack when they meet next week.

Once those cuts are done, they must next embark on an even harder task: shaving more than $2.5 billion from the next state budget to balance the 2008-09 spending plan.

HOW BAD IS IT?

"However bad you think it is, it's worse than that," said Rep. Joe Pickens, a Palatka Republican and chairman of the House Schools and Learning Council.

While the budget cuts are not unexpected, they are not sitting well.

"This borders on insanity," said Broward Schools Superintendent Jim Notter. "You've done all your hiring. You've done all your budgeting. And you've spent down your money."

Broward County schools must cut $21.7 million during the remaining months of the school year, and officials expect to offset some of that because they froze hiring, left 180 jobs unfilled and cut back on purchases after the first round of budget cuts in fall 2007.

While it won't be impossible to make the new numbers work, Notter said, it won't be easy, either.

"It's like a hunger-strike diet -- you either die or you come back," he said. "I'm not ready to die."

Miami-Dade County schools officials expect the cuts will take between $23 million and $28 million from their $3 billion budget, but the district is taking steps to "minimize the impact on the workforce," Associate Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.

The district has already cut the administrative budget, eliminated travel expenses and imposed an ''absolute moratorium'' on nonessential purchases, he said.

NEED FLEXIBILITY

Carvalho said that the school system will ask lawmakers to give the districts flexibility so they can better manage their financial woes. For example, officials want authority to use property-tax revenues that are now dedicated for construction to pay the district's property insurance bill.

Miami-Dade also wants to suspend its teacher merit-pay program, get permission to use money now set aside for transportation and textbooks, and delay the last round of class-size requirements until 2010, Carvalho said.

The budget-cutting plans for both chambers also include a $17 million cut to courts, leading judges across the state to warn it will prompt hundreds of furloughs of judicial assistants in circuit and county courts.

"I'm not sure the people in Tallahassee were quite aware of the role of the judicial assistants," said Sam Slom, chief administrative judge for Miami-Dade's county criminal division. If judicial assistants have to be furloughed for 58 working days, as projected, "that would be devastating" and "would have a very traumatic effect on the public. Our courts would shut down," he said.

Negotiations between House and Senate staff and judicial administrators have persuaded lawmakers to allow the court to cut programs, rather than staff, to avoid massive court shutdowns.

"They understand the significance of the furlough issue and have asked for what else might be done," said Lisa Goodner, state courts administrator.

(miamiherald.com)

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