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Leon County Schools: Academically Sound, Financially Shaky

By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-907302.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Education has been one of the few areas in the state budget where lawmakers have tried to avoid cuts, but in the third year of a national recession, local schools and districts are feeling the pain. Public school officials find themselves making tough choices. What was once a relatively safe sector, education, has leaders trying to do more and more, with less and less money. Lynn Hatter takes a look at how the capital counties have fared in the middle of the great recession.

At Leon County's Hartsfield Elementary School, Superintendent Jackie Pons takes a moment to highlight some of the latest district FCAT scores.

"Oakridge went up 8-percent in reading and 15-percent in math, so that's pretty remarkable. Sullivan went up 11-percent in reading and 8-percent in math Hawks Rise 60-percent of their math students scored at level five."

Leon County's third grade reading and math scores are about 4.5-percentage points higher than the state average. 76-percent of the county's third graders are reading at grade level and 83-percent are at grade level when it comes to math. But, in the last few years those scores have fallen by about two-percentage points. Academically, the county remains pretty strong with most of its forty-eight schools receiving a grade of A or B on the state report card.

Most of the district's problems are financial. 33-thousand students sit in classrooms, and the number of students in each of those classrooms will have to meet hard caps this year because of Florida's Class Size Amendment. That has district officials very worried. If Leon goes over the mandated eighteen students per class in elementary, twenty-two in middle school and twenty-five in high school, it could lose thousands of dollars per student over the cap.

"We could have made it. Instead, we got $896-thousand. So now, they are telling us to implement the class size amendment, but they are not going to give us the final round of funding."

The county needed four-million dollars to meet the class size requirement. If Leon fails to make the count, it will have to give a portion of its funding back to the state. But in order to be in compliance in August, it has to make up the rest of the four-million dollars it needs, which means some things in the budget may have to go.

"You know, the Legislature is acting like superintendents have the dollars to make this final round, and we can prove by what happened with the state board that the dollars were not allocated."

On top of the class size penalties, the county is also dealing with rising healthcare and retirement costs for district employees. District Chief Financial Officer Merrill Wimberley says that's going to dig a deeper budget hole.

"We know for sure we'll have $1.3-million more for retirement. We could be looking at anywhere between $600-thousand to a million for health insurance. So right away you're at two-million dollars."

It's still not known exactly how much money Leon will have next year, because a big chunk of its budget comes from local property taxes. Lawmakers based 2010 funding on how much money districts could collect, about 96-percent of taxes due. But, Wimberley says the numbers lawmakers used don't match with historical collection figures.

"We've been budgeting at 95-percent since I don't know how long. I've been here since 1996 and they were doing it way before then. Suddenly we've gone to 96-percent. I think for a lot of school districts, that's going to be funny money."

Wimberly says the local property tax issue, combined with class size, retirement and health insurance, means the school district may have to find or cut another $6.5-million.

"It's a mess. I think it's a mess."

Despite the potential budget hole, Pons says he's not planning on cuts. There will still be the same number of teaching positions open next year, though, that does not mean the same people will occupy those seats.