Florida's Economy Spells Trouble for Schools

By Del Stover

One of the smartest decisions Diane Smith has made on the Volusia County, Fla., school board may have been “keeping my mouth shut.” For when parents decried last year’s proposal to close several schools—a financial necessity for the district—Smith realized that defending the board’s plan was not in the public’s interest.

“We needed to give people the time to talk to us, whether the experience was nice or not,” she says. “That’s a hard lesson to learn. We always want to talk, to tell our side of the story.”

It’s not a pretty story. A sinking Florida economy has severely curtailed education funding, leaving school boards with no choice but to make draconian budget cuts. In Volusia, hundreds of employees have been let go. Tutoring and after-school programs have disappeared. Schools have closed or been put on the chopping block. Construction has been shelved, and the superintendent took a pay cut.

A whiff of desperation hangs over the district. Yet, at the same time, last year’s uproar over school closings has bolstered officials’ conviction that “we could not just be reactive, but we had to be proactive in fighting state budget cuts,” Smith says. And in recent months, officials have launched an aggressive campaign to rally the community behind this brewing political fight. 

The stakes for Volusia County cannot be much higher, school officials say. In January, state lawmakers cut the district’s funding by $8.5 million, bringing total revenue losses to nearly $50 million over the past two years. Early projections for 2009-10 suggest the district—with a current budget of $460 million—could lose another $37 million to $44 million.

“We’re at the breaking point,” warns Superintendent Margaret Smith. “We have nowhere to go if we’re to maintain our quality of instruction.”

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