July 16, 2008

Crew’s Grim Budget Forecast: Layoffs and Cuts to Programs

By Kathleen McGrory, The Miami Herald

Jul. 16--Money issues took center stage Tuesday as the Miami-Dade School Board took a first glance at the district's tentative 2008-09 budget.

"We are coming to a point where the choices we have to make are the choices between how many people to lay off and which ones and from what departments," Superintendent Rudy Crew told board members at a workshop before the regular board meeting.

But the issue of the pay raises promised to teachers and other employees went unresolved, with district budget officials saying they could either withhold the raises or lay off 1,188 people.

Of those positions, 524 would be teachers.

Among the proposed cuts:

Funding to schools will be cut by 5 percent. The affected programs will include summer schools, magnet schools and alternative education centers.

The district's central office would be cut 30 percent. Regional administration would also be scaled back.

Additionally, the tentative budget includes no funds for secondary school reform -- an initiative that allows high schools to move from a six-period to an eight-period day.

A national trend in education, secondary school reform is said to help retain students. Dismantling Miami-Dade's program would leave 134 high-school teachers without jobs, district officials said.

The 2008-09 budget has prompted intense debate since April, when Crew first predicted the district would face a $284 million gap.

Because Tuesday's budget meeting was a workshop, no formal votes were taken. Board members will weigh in formally on July 30, at the first of two public hearings. The board must approve a final budget by mid-September.

The district's overall budget this year is just over $5.5 billion -- about $609 million less than last year.

The school system lost $82.4 million in revenue from the state last year, in part because enrollment is expected to fall by more than 3,300 students.

Additionally, costs are expected to increase by $119.2 million, Crew said.

Cutting secondary school reform, which is in place at 17 high schools, saves about $16 million, officials said.

That money would go to the district's rainy day fund, which now stands at about $26 million, Crew said.

Board chairman Agustin Barrera said that while the initiative is worthwhile, the district can't afford it.

"We're at a crossroads here," Barrera said. "We're being funded for a basic education and that's what we're going to have to provide."

But Board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla opposed eliminating the program. He called the move "another whack at teachers, because teachers receive a supplement for working extra periods."

United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz was also frustrated.

"I don't know how this district can stand to look at itself," she said.

"This move will harm children. Secondary school reform is something that helps children move to the next level."

Board member Evelyn Greer called the cuts painful but necessary.

She also issued a warning: The district will likely face more cuts from Tallahassee later this year, she said.

"I think there is worse ahead of us than we have already experienced," Greer said.

"We might as well just get used to it."

Other board members, however, said they were not satisfied with Crew's cuts. Board member Marta Perez said she had hoped board members would have an opportunity to seek additional savings.

Diaz de la Portilla said he would like to have "an independent budget reviewer" and would target more cuts to the administration.

"There is money to be found," he said.


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