Education budget cuts 30 percent deeper than expected

5:36 PM, May 6, 2011   |    comments
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Clearwater, Florida - State legislators are taking a deeper cut out of the education budget: 1.1 billion dollars. The cuts represent about 30 percent more than school districts expected and that's based on the worst case scenario.

The cuts come during Teacher Appreciation Week. First graders in Allison Jester's class wear t-shirts that read "Jester" in blue and "1" in orange below. The t-shirts were made by student Carter Cole and his mother to let everybody, including Jester, know how they feel about her.

"It stands for the best teacher ever," says Carter. "I think it's because she's very nice. I really like her. If I could have picked my teacher, I would have picked Ms. Jester. She's really good at her job. I love that she's very kind. One of the many things that I love about her."

Jester's students and parents appreciate her, but she's not feeling the love from state legislators. Jester is one of three first and second year teachers at Belcher Elementary School being laid off due to budget cuts. The school will also lose a second grade teacher and ESOL teacher who teaches English as a second language.

"It's upsetting to know things are going to change. It's like having the rug pulled out from underneath you," says Jester.

Most school districts are still crunching the new numbers but, in Pinellas, the plan is to eliminate 1,100 first and second year teachers. The district says it will try to hire most, if not all, back to help fill vacancies created by teachers retiring or leaving their job.

"Legislators have no idea what they've done," says Lisa Roth, principal at Belcher Elementary School.

Jester became a full-time teacher this year but, for the last 13 years, she's worked at Belcher as a part-time title one teacher. Her children, a twin boy and girl, attended school at Belcher. Last year, Jester was one of 40 applicants for the first grade teaching job.

"It's devastating. These teachers are wonderful. They are passionate, love children," says Roth. She hopes she will have the chance of getting all three teachers back. Roth says she has to believe state leaders are doing what's best for the students but she has some doubt. "I have to believe there had to be other ways to do this other than balancing the budget off the backs of children. That's what they've done. They're balancing the budget off the backs of children."

Just last week, Principal Roth had to tell seven staff members, a reading coach, science coach, volunteer coordinator, three teaching partners and the school's technology technician that their jobs are being eliminated. Now, add the three teachers from this week that's 10 positions lost. Educators say the cuts will impact students in the classroom.

"We can do a lot with kids, maybe not as flashy. We will do without smart boards or dot cams but we can still help kids succeed. We will continue to do that," says Roth. "My school will think of our staff as a family. We will stand together and take it one step at a time together."

There's a chance Jester may return to Belcher, but just a chance. Jester says, "I want to stay working here. Belcher is my family, my home, but I need a job. I'll go elsewhere. Hopefully, they'll have something in the county for me."

Pinellas school district officials have also told employees to expect furloughs and to pay more in health care costs. The school board is expected to vote on the superintendents proposed budget cuts on May 24th.The district will hold a job fair for displaced teaches in June.

Hillsborough school district officials say they will have to cut 25 million dollars more than expected, for a total of 100 million dollars. Districts will see some funding relief. If approved by the governor, state workers, including teachers, will contribute three percent of their salaries to their pension. School leaders say that's money that will go into a school district's general budget.

Hillsborough estimates that pension contributions adds up to $22.9 million. It's money, district officials say, that will help fill the funding gap by deeper budget cuts.

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