Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 at 2:11pm

Lake County Schools – It’s Time for Straight Talk

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On Friday, February 13, 2009, the Marion County Public School District announced that due to massive budget cuts and reductions in funding it would not be able to offer jobs to 522 first and second year teachers next year.  The District projects a $33 million dollar reduction in funding, and this cut in teachers would save the District $23.5 million based on benefits and an average salary of $45,000 per year.  The District plans to increase class sizes and go forward with additional cuts in order to cover the shortfalls.

The Lake County School District is reporting they cannot get a handle on the reduced state funding.  At a workshop on Monday, School Board Members and officials could not come to grips with the reduced funding, and Larry Metz was quoted as saying that he did not want the District to go backwards.  Their reckless spending leaves them no option but to go backwards, and they seem to be trying to shut their eyes from reality.  State funding this year has been reduced by 4% and officials are reportedly worried funding could be reduced by more than 2% in March.  Lake County’s Chief Financial Officer said they had expected to lose $15.5 million in state funding, but it could go much higher.  That’s less than half of Marion County Schools, so the much higher scenario is definitely in play.

Hang on just a second.  The Marion County School District has announced major cuts, which we are sure they did not want to make, based on information on state funding.  Volusia and Orange County Schools are announcing doomsday budget scenarios.  Yet, Lake County is saying it doesn’t know, but thinks it could be high.  Lake County Schools have been on an absolute drunken spending binge in regards to building schools, and their capacity to borrow through bonding has been tapped out.  Yet, they are not sure on cuts?

As Obama’s preacher would say, “The chickens are coming home to roost.”  The Lake County School District needs to come clean because it is obvious they know more than they are telling the public.  It also sounds like this School District will have to make some very heart-wrenching decisions for next year.  Remember, this school year has only a few more months left in it.  The Lake County School District, as usual, has no plans.  The public should demand better accountability, even if the news is bad.

What really could be at play here is the District’s desire to cover up the bad news to protect the reckless spending of the previous School Board.  For several years, School Board Members Conner, Barrow, Strong, Fischer, and Metz touted their spending in school construction.  In the name of children, they remodeled schools that didn’t need it and constructed schools with no expenses spared.  The only problem was that the Lake County taxpayers couldn’t afford it.  Like so many individuals who bought homes they really couldn’t afford, the same thing is happening with the Lake County School District.  If not for government funding, Lake County Schools would be on the same par as many of the home foreclosures in the county.

It is troubling to think the District may have to take drastic steps like Marion County and layoff one-sixth of all of its teachers because of reckless spending.  See, you can cut teachers and their salaries, but you can’t return those overbuilt and excessive schools.  What was forgotten by the school leadership is the investment in education should happen in teachers, not buildings.  Some of the greatest educations occur daily in some of the oldest buildings because great teachers need only a blackboard and a piece of chalk.  New buildings and remodeled rooms do not teach students; it’s the teachers.

The other “I told you so” was that home building and impact fees can never be a source of continuous funding for education.  During the last impact fee battle with Lake County, our group told the Lake County Board of County Commissioners and School Board that the building industry in Florida has gone “boom and bust more times than a cheap Chinese firecracker since the 1930’s, and to rely on this industry as a source of constant funding was dangerous.”  Well, the boom has bust, and unfortunately Citizens for Better Government was right and they were wrong, again.   Hey, just for grins and giggles, the next time you have one of these debates how about listening to the experts in the field?  Construction related people only know two ways – feast or famine, and for most of the time it’s famine.

The bottom line on this Lake County School District budget mess is the leadership needs to come clean and be straight up with the public and its teachers.  If crow has to be eaten, do so.  Most importantly, let’s all join together and figure a way out of this mess.  The lives of thousands of students and teachers are on the line here, and it’s time we cut buildings instead of teachers!

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