Funding is major concern for school district


Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 11:12 p.m.
Alachua County School Board members will be bracing for uncertain times and fickle finances in the coming year.
Employing a wait-and-see attitude, officials will ponder their options to financially contend with two constitutional amendments that Florida voters passed in November.
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test could play its biggest role yet in the lives of students this year, when third-graders are required to be remediated if they cannot pass the test and 12th-graders cannot graduate high school without passing it.
Institutional knowledge also could be fleeting, as the district likely will lose at least 40 employees who plan to retire this year. The three-year contract of Superintendent Mary Chambers also expires in October, which could prompt a re-evaluation of leadership in the district.
"We will be losing a lot of talented people," newly elected School Board member Wes Eubank said. "We're going to have to look at how many positions we have and what we really need."
In November, Florida voters passed two amendments that could have lasting impacts on Florida schools.
One of those amendments requires the Legislature to reduce class sizes in all grades by 2010 and begin setting aside enough money to reduce class sizes by two students beginning this fall. The other amendment requires school districts to offer universal, free, pre-kindergarten services to any family who wants it by 2005.
Since the classroom amendment was proposed, experts have estimated it would cost anywhere from $5 billion to $27 billion over eight years to build new schools.
In Alachua County, officials said the amendment would require the district to build one new high school, one new middle school and five new elementary schools, as well as hire an additional 230 teachers, for a total price tag of between $124 million and $127 million over the next eight years, not including the continuing costs for teacher salaries and facilities upkeep.
To deal with overcrowded and underenrolled schools in Alachua County, however, School Board members may have little choice other than to look at shuffling students within the district, particularly at the elementary level.
At a recent legislative delegation meeting, state Rep. Ed Jennings, D-Gainesville, said the district would likely have few guarantees for state construction money unless all classrooms are filled to capacity.
Over the years, gradual population shifts in Alachua County have resulted in underenrolled east-side schools and burgeoning west-side schools, along with social and racial imbalances.
Board members defeated a rezoning plan of about 900 elementary students early in 2002, opting instead for a comprehensive study of school zones that has no required timeline.
Statewide, the pre-K amendment could cost the state up to $650 million a year. Alachua County school officials did not have exact figures for the cost to the district.
The pre-K amendment says that lawmakers cannot take money away from other programs to make it a reality. The class-size amendment requires the Legislature, and not local school districts, to pay for those costs and mandates the Legislature to begin reducing classes next year.
But that language does not reassure local school officials that costs will not be passed down to them.
"There's not a lot we can do until we have more information," Chambers said of Florida lawmakers, who begin meeting in March. "We have to plan now, but we don't even know what the funding will be. I'm not sure they fully realize that we're already starting to plan for next year."
Cathi Carr can be reached at 374-5086 or carrc@gvillesun.com

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