School Budget Cuts
12:00 am
Fri September 9, 2011

Broward Schools Face Largest Budget Deficit In State; Effect On Other Districts Unclear

Every school district in Florida is dealing with layoffs and budget cuts. But Broward County in South Florida is facing the largest budget deficit in the state—more than $140 million. And its forced teachers and students in the nation’s 6th largest school district to get creative about spending money.

Students at South Broward High in Hollywood waited in the rain during the first week of school to get inside what used to be the video production classroom. Only, the video production program was cut last school year.

Now the room is a maze of lime green, red and purple textbooks. Stacks and stacks of them. More than five feet high.

But the school’s textbook coordinator, Debra Hixon, has a method to the chaos.

“In the front is the math books, then it goes science after math and then social studies and then foreign language,” she said. “And English would be to the left side of the room. We have to leave a path for the computer carts to zoom by through here.”

There are no bookshelves because the county can’t afford them.

“Honestly there’s no point in spending money on bookcases when there’s not really a need to use them,” Hixon said.

It’s just one sign of the massive budget crisis facing Broward County schools.

Lowest Paid Teachers

This year the district eliminated the jobs of 1,400 teachers and about 1,000 other district employees.Though some have been re-hired.

That’s more than any other county in Florida.

And Broward teachers are now the lowest paid urban teachers in the state.

In the last three years, their salaries have been cut by 16%. Compare that to the 6% pay cut in the next worst district, Desoto County.

And with budgets for classroom supplies shrinking, underpaid Broward teachers are recruiting students to help stock their classrooms.

“An Irresistible Incentive”

It’s nothing new for teachers to ask students to bring in school supplies. But South Broward High senior Kevius Morgan says his art teacher gave the class an irresistible incentive.

“The teacher was like, ‘Okay, I’m running out of paper towels and I don’t know how you’re going to dry your hands after you clean them, so if you bring in paper towels you get a letter grade up,” Morgan said.

His final grade increased by a full letter grade, he said.

“It saved me,” said Taylor Drake, a senior who was given the same option in her Algebra II class last year. “My final grade… increased from like C to B,” because she brought in markers, rulers and scrap paper.

The principal of the school, Alan Strauss, said he didn’t know this was going on. But he said it doesn’t surprise him.

“Because of the difficult budgetary times,” Strauss said. “But we don’t encourage it to be for extra credit because that could be seen as a socioeconomic advantage. So I’m not a big fan of that.”

Strauss says five years ago this wouldn’t even be brought up in the classroom.

Grand Jury Calls School Board Corrupt

The Broward school district is trying to rebound from a statewide Grand Jury report that blasted the School Board, calling it inept and corrupted by contractors and lobbyists.

If it were legally possible, the grand jurors said they would fire the entire board.

But the tumult at the top hasn’t hurt student performance—at least not yet.

Broward County is one of four finalists nationwide for the Broad Foundation Prize, which recognizes student achievement in large urban schools. The recognition is based on standardized test scores and demographic data, not just class grades.

What’s To Come In Other Districts?

But Becky McMahan expects that will change soon. She’s the Budget director for Broward County Public Schools.

“I think eventually, if these reductions continue, you know it’s hard to teach in a classroom with 65 students, or 30 kids, or whatever they turn out to be,” McMahan said. “I’m hoping this year was our toughest year.”

Other districts could have their toughest time next year.

The Broward County school district spent all its federal stimulus money last year, when other districts like Palm Beach and Miami-Dade held on to some.

But that stimulus money is likely to run out for them this year.

This story is part of WLRN’s StateImpact Florida education reporting project, which examines the effect of state policies on the lives of students, educators and parents in our community.