Alachua County schools face new round of cuts

Major decisions are being made in Tallahassee--decisions that will affect the quality of our schools, the quality of life in our communities and the very future of our state.

State leaders will be meeting frequently during the next few weeks and months to discuss shortfalls in both the current and upcoming fiscal years. What will happen to public schools has yet to be decided, but Commissioner of Education Eric Smith has told school districts to expect another 12% cut in state funding for schools in 2009-10. That would mean an additional $12 million loss for Alachua County Public Schools.

If this cut should become reality, it would be devastating to a district that has already lost a great deal of funding. Between the beginning of the 2007-08 school year and the beginning of this school year, the district lost $14 million in operating funds and $3.25 million in facilities funding. Since August, the district has lost another $4 million due to a state 'holdback' that has now become permanent. The district also been told to expect another round of cuts for this school year after the special legislative session January 5-16. Dealing with such cuts would be even more challenging because the district will already be halfway through the school year.

The nation is in the midst of an economic crisis. Florida's been particularly hard hit, and revenues are way down. Obviously, cuts will have to be made. Our concern is that Florida's schools seem to be bearing the brunt of the pain. Public education makes up about one-third of the state's operating budget, but bore two-thirds of the 2007-08 mid-year cuts. And even before the economic downturn, state funding for public schools was very poor.

Here in Alachua County, per pupil state funding is down 13% since 2006-07. Per pupil local funding, on the other hand, is up nearly 30%, mainly due to an increase in the value of the local tax rolls.

Even with that increase in local funding, total per pupil funding in Alachua County is up less than 6/10 of one percent since 06-07.

Clearly, this community values education. The overwhelming public support for the one mill initiative despite a poor economy is proof that local citizens support their schools. And yes, the one mill will protect the programs listed on the ballot-school nurses and elementary art and music programs, for example. But many other critical programs and services are at risk if the state continues to balance its budget on the backs of its schoolchildren.

The Florida Constitution says it's the state's 'paramount' duty to provide a high quality system of free public schools. We think we've got such a system here in Alachua County, but we're concerned that we won't have one much longer if state budget cuts continue to fall disproportionately on public schools.