110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
By Al Everson
posted Feb 15, 2009 - 1:31:29pm
The crisis is real, Volusia School District leaders insist, but understanding it is difficult.
Volusia County Schools Superintendent Dr. Margaret Smith has cut personnel, programs and activities, and claims the School Board may have little choice but to eliminate more vital expenditures.
"The State revenue for 2009-10 is continuing to plummet and it is projected the State shortfall will be between $4-$6 billion," Smith wrote in an e-mail to employees. "School districts have been informed that we will experience even more severe cuts for next year. For Volusia, this could mean a loss of between $37-$44 million requiring dire program and service cuts for next school year."
In public forums and presentations to employees, Smith has declared Florida public schools are "at the breaking point."
Funds for interscholastic academic competitions, substitute teachers, official travel, and use of district vehicles have been reduced. Summer school, athletics and cheerleading are at risk.
"We're down to bare bones now," Smith said, in the wake of the latest $13.7 million midyear reduction ordered by Tallahassee.
A four-day week and closing more small schools have also been discussed.
"I think every organization can step back and trim," Assistant Superintendent for Finance Dr. Robert Moll said. "We're doing that now. The difference is our district had a $45 million hit."
Moll echoed warnings of more austerity, as the faltering economy drains money from the Sunshine State coffers.
"That's another $45 million hit," Moll said. "When the Titanic sank, it was because too many compartments flooded. I don't know how many compartments can flood and not sink."
Moll said he is open to meaningful suggestions about reducing spending without reducing essential personnel or damaging instruction.
"We need to start taking chunks out of this budget," he said. "Eighty-three percent of this budget is people."
Volusia County School Board Chairwoman Diane Smith (no relation to the superintendent) likewise called for money-saving ideas from the grass roots. She, too, laced her appeal in words of warning.
"We cannot take another $40 million in cuts," Smith said. "You will not recognize education in Volusia County if we have to absorb that kind of cut."
Smith said she welcomes outside help. To educate the public about education finance and to find possible savings, Smith is calling for the creation of a blue-ribbon committee of citizens to examine school-system spending and combat waste.
Only citizens knowledgeable about the budget can help, she said.
"They need to see where all the money goes," Smith said. "We're very open to having the community come in and look."
Trying to comprehend the complex
To dispense sensible advice, one must know something about the budget. Yet, the Volusia School District budget is not easy to peruse. Although it is only about a half-inch thick, the spending plan is a daunting document, even for those with some exposure to government finance.
Gone are the days when printed, or "hard," copies of the school-system budget were provided at no charge to the media and interested citizens.
Now, there is only one printed copy of the School District's 2008-09 budget available for public perusal at the Schools Administrative Complex, 200 N. Clara Ave. in DeLand.
The budget is posted on the Volusia County Schools Web site, but that doesn't make it any easier to review or comprehend. Pursuant to Florida law requiring public records to be available to the public, the budget is available, but that does not mean one will easily find what he or she wants to know about how the district spends money.
Asking people who work with the budget on a day-to-day basis is probably your best bet for getting information — if they have time to talk with you.
To dispel some of the confusion and mystery, The Beacon requested information about the budget and was told the answers may come only at a price.
On Jan. 20, The Beacon submitted 10 questions about the fiscal situation and terms used in the 2008-09 budget. Answers have been slow in coming.
On Jan. 23, school-system Community Information Director Nancy Wait replied by e-mail, "this is an extensive request. A cost may be involved. I'll have to get back to you with an answer."
Charging money for information is not unusual, Volusia Teachers Organization (VTO) President Andrew Spar said.
"They do that to us. We've paid a lot of money to them," Spar said.
The teachers union has paid $450 to the school district for information over the past year, he said.
Spar said the VTO asked for detailed information about health insurance for employees, and received two different figures for the annual total cost: $41 million and $49 million.
"How do we get the same information and two different numbers?" Spar asked.
Moll, meanwhile, put the Volusia School Board's cost of health coverage at $60 million.
School-system employees, incidentally, pay only $5 per month for their own health insurance, substantially below what most workers in the private sector pay. They pay more if they choose to cover their dependents.
A few million here, a few million there add up to real money
As noted earlier, the Volusia County School District's 2008-09 budget totals $1.08 billion.
That sum is awesome for people with incomes in the $25,000 to $50,000 range who are trying to live within their means. On Page 57 of the budget, the reader finds a series of columns, divided by revenues and expenditures, along with departments and major activities.
There are six columns with figures and totals: general operating, $474.3 million; debt service, $119.8 million; capital projects, $412.9 million; special revenue, $62.6 million; internal service, $11.5 million; and total — all funds, $1.08 billion.
The general-operating expenses, which cover activities in classrooms among other expenses, account for less than half the grand total.
In glancing down the page, one notes actual classroom instruction costs the school system just under $304 million — less than one third of the overall total budget.
The rest of the budget consists of school construction and capital improvements, school maintenance, support activities such as food service and clerical staffing, school busing, debt service, and administration.
Critics of the school system often target administrative costs as one of the budget bloaters, but it accounts for about 10 percent of the total operating budget, or about $45 million.
One surprising number is the ending fund balance, which appears near the bottom of the page. That figure, just under $130 million, represents money carried over from the previous fiscal year to the current one, and the practice is common in government.
Elected and appointed officials object to the use of the term "surplus" in referring to the fund balance, insisting the money is used to begin operating in a new fiscal year before revenues have rolled in, and it may include a cash reserve or cushion for unforeseen expenses.
With that unspent amount, how can the School Board and its supporters claim they are impoverished?
"I have a feeling this may include everything that might be encumbered," Diane Smith replied, when asked if she had read the budget. "Our fund balance is basically zero."
Diane Smith conceded the budget may be difficult for laymen to understand, including items like the fund balance.
"Yes, on the balance sheet, it shows $129 million, but it is appropriated. It is going to be spent," Moll said.
Some of the fund balance is further broken down into capital projects, and that pot of cash cannot be commingled with the operating budget, he said.
"We can't touch that," added Moll. "When someone says you have a large fund balance, that is all appropriated."
Moll said some of the money can be tapped for emergency bills.
"If we have serious structural problems in our schools, if we have heating and air-conditioning systems fail, we have to pay for that," he said.
Still, with all of the millions or tens of millions of dollars, and despite all the talk about technological advances in learning, acute shortages of some low-tech items persist.
For years, teachers have complained they have to pay for their own classroom supplies.
"Right now, we have no money to spend in our classrooms," said Michele McFall-Conte, a teacher who also is a Deltona city commissioner.
A professional and political colleague spoke of her own experience.
"When I run out of chalk, and when I run out of staples ... it comes out of my pocket," said Commissioner Zenaida Denizac, who teaches at Pine Ridge High School. "This is as real as it could be."
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