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Published in Print: October 17, 2001, as Fla. School Aid Threatened By Drop in Tourism

Fla. School Aid Threatened By Drop in Tourism

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Fiscal times were tight in Florida even before last month's terrorist attacks, owing to the slowdown in the economy. Now things look even bleaker—especially for schools—in that tourism-dependent state.

The attacks of Sept. 11 stopped some Americans from the vacationing and air travel on which Florida so heavily depends. Gov. Jeb Bush has ordered the legislature into a two-week special session, starting Oct. 22, to resolve a budget shortfall of $1 billion or more in the current year.

Many states besides Florida face budget crunches this year. But states hit hardest by the drop in tourism following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon face more serious budget crises—New York and Hawaii among them.

In Florida, school districts could feel the brunt. Across the state, districts have frozen hiring, cut staff and student travel, and compiled lists of substantial budget cuts that might be needed.

"There will be no agency untouched," said Jim Horne, a former state senator and Florida's new education secretary, appointed this past summer by Gov. Bush, a Republican.

Mr. Horne had already been at work restructuring the state education department to reflect a new K-20 education system—spanning primary through graduate school—that was approved by voters three years ago and is rolling out this year. Now he may be forced to rethink the current budget, along with next year's, to reflect not only the new law, but also the dramatic budget cuts that might be required.

His hope was that one-time cuts and a rebounding economy would make next year's budget less tight than this year's. But now he fears that permanent cuts may be required. That could mean job losses in K-12 school districts as well as the state's universities and community colleges, Mr. Horne said, even though he and Gov. Bush have pledged to try to keep education cuts at a minimum.

Scaling Back

State leaders were awaiting data to be released this week that would tell them more about how far state tax revenue would drop. This year's state budget includes $7.9 billion for precollegiate education.

Florida districts have already been preparing for the worst. Most districts froze hiring last week, and some considered cuts to their academic programs. In suburban Tampa, Superintendent John Long made a list of possible cuts in the 51,000-student Pasco County district. His list included middle school and junior-varsity high school sports, textbook purchases, and after- school programs, among other items.

He said the state economist's estimate of a $1.5 billion shortfall could mean he must shrink his $500 million budget by $13 million.

If layoffs are required, Mr. Long said, administrators and uncertified employees would come first, teachers last. Contract negotiations with the district's teachers may be reopened, he said, even though they won only a 2 percent raise this year in the face of a slowing economy.

Lawmakers should give districts flexibility to make cuts locally, Mr. Long said. For instance, the state shouldn't keep class-size requirements while cutting money for salaries, he argued.

Teacher-contract talks in about a third of Florida's school districts may be put on hold during the budget debate, said David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association.

"The budget was bad before those events [of Sept. 11] occurred," he said. "It's gotten worse now."

The Florida School Boards Association is calling on legislators to consider ways other than sales taxes to pay for schools. Florida has no state income tax and relies heavily on sales taxes, many of them paid by tourists.

Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the school boards' group, sent a memo last week to all districts, urging a hiring freeze and suggesting cuts in business travel and office supplies. If the budget shortfall is worse than expected, he said, "I can guarantee you we will not only have a hiring freeze, we will have to reduce personnel."

Hawaii Hit Hard

In Hawaii, where tourism came close to a halt after Sept. 11, the legislature also will convene on Oct. 22 for a special session to consider Gov. Benjamin Cayetano's proposals to stimulate the economy. The Democratic governor's plan includes tax relief and a $1 billion package of capital improvements.

Several school construction projects, as well as maintenance at schools across the statewide district, may be placed on a fast track to keep people working.

Of the roughly $200 million worth of construction projects the Hawaii education department proposed this year, the legislature has already funded about $45 million. The governor's plan includes an additional $262 million for classroom construction needs, according to the state's budget and finance department.

It's unclear, though, whether the education department's operating budget will be affected by the economic slowdown, said Greg Knudsen, a spokesman for the department.

"If the tax revenues that we've counted on to fund this current year are not materializing, then we're going to have to cut back," he said.

In Arizona, meanwhile, the legislature is scheduled to gather in a special session Nov. 13 to consider up to $1.5 billion in budget cuts. Nebraska lawmakers were slated to enter a special session this week to consider smaller budget cuts.

Assistant Editor Linda Jacobson contributed to this report.

Vol. 21, Issue 7, Pages 18,20

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