Polk School Supt. foresees no further staff cuts in new budget

Published 4:40 pm Monday, August 10, 2009

&dquo;We are really hopeful that what we did in the spring and summer is what we had to do,&dquo; says Miller, &dquo;and that we won&squo;t have to make any more cuts.&dquo;

Supt. Miller says the school system took proactive steps with the expectation that it would receive about $750,000 less from the state than last school year.

That&squo;s probably close to what the total will be once cuts are added up across a variety of areas, says Miller.

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Among the cuts, the state budget reduces central office funding by 7.5 percent, small school money by up to 5 percent, and leaves no funding for teacher training or technology. In addition, for the next two years teacher salaries are frozen and no funding is provided for textbook purchases.

If school systems have needs in technology or textbooks, for instance, they will have to find funds from another line item in the budget.

Miller says the school system can hold off on some spending in those areas for a year, but it&squo;s not sustainble for long. Eventually, textbooks and technology equipment must be replaced, and teachers must receive training to continue moving forward with the curriculum. Just paying annual software licensing fees and maintaining existing technology costs money, say Polk officials. They note that just the bulbs for the heavily used overhead projectors in classrooms cost $200 each.

Dave Scherping, director of technology for Polk County Schools, says budget restrictions have forced him in recent years&bsp; to purchase fewer computers than they need. Instead of coming with a typical request in a couple years for 50 new computers, Scherping says the freeze on spending may force them to seek 300 computers at once to catch up.

Invariably, a certain percentage of worn out textbooks, which have a life span of about five years, must be replaced each year too.&bsp; To cover such expenses the school system likely will have to turn to savings to offset an operational deficit as it did last year.

Due to the state&squo;s budget crisis, school systems had to send some money back to the state last school year. In Polk County, about $180,000 was sent back, and the school system ended up taking about $70,000 from its fund balance, or reserves, at the end of the fiscal year.

&dquo;I think it&squo;s going to be a situation where you manage the best you can to get by, but you&squo;re still going to need to use savings at the end of the year,&dquo; Miller.

He adds that he still worries the state may come back midway through the new school year and ask school systems to send more money back.

That&squo;s partly how the state is handling the current cuts. The state made some cuts to specific areas of education funding, but more than half of the reduced funding is labeled as a &dquo;discretionary cut&dquo; left up to the school systems.

In Polk County&squo;s case, the state has specified roughly $370,000 in cuts, and Polk administrators must choose where to trim another $380,000 and send that money back to the state.

Despite the challenges faced with this year&squo;s budget, Supt. Miller says the school system can&squo;t complain. He notes that every business across the country is facing the same challenges.

&dquo;It&squo;s happening to everybody and we&squo;ve got to go through it too,&dquo; he says.

Federal stimulus money has helped some, providing enough to save some teacher assistant positions, say Polk school officials. They hope additional staff positions will be restored if Polk County obtains grants it is seeking for a Head Start expansion and 21st Century summer and after school programs.

Miller adds that Polk County Schools had the benefit of strong support from the Polk County Board of Commissioners and the community. The county board did not cut local funding for schools, and agreed to let the school system use some of its capital funds for operational costs this year.

Without that support, Polk County Schools almost certainly would be losing more teachers and seeing substantial increases in classroom sizes. As it is, the size of Polk classrooms, which were well below the state maximum, may increase only slightly.

&dquo;Compared to so many places, we&squo;re fortunate that we have county commissioners that kept our funding the same,&dquo; he said. &dquo;We&squo;re very fortunate that we have local citizens who are trying to keep schools where they are so they&squo;ve really helped us with that.&dquo;

Polk County Schools plans to review the state budget further and work toward finalizing its own budget by the school board&squo;s September meeting. The school system had to adopt a temporary budget since the state budget was not approved as of the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.