Although the school board showed concern about dipping into the district's reserves again this year, the tentative budget was approved during the Lee County School District's budget meeting Tuesday night.
Superintendent Dr. Joseph Burke said as the district began to build the budget months ago they included various departments, along with personnel from schools to help guide them in the process.
The approved 2012-2013 tentative budget is $1,299,866,249.
The tentative required local effort millage rate is 5.336 mills, the basic discretionary millage is .748 mills and the capital outlay millage is 1.5 mills. The total millage rates for fiscal year 2013 is 7.584 mills.
Dr. Ami Desamours, budget director, said the proposed millage rate will generate $18 million less in revenue than the previous year, which is the lowest tax roll since 2005. She said it declined by 23 percent, 12 percent, then 8 percent and now this year the district is down to .76 percent.
"This tax roll has hit bottom," she said, adding that she hopes that the district will see things creep up again.
Burke said the district is going to be raising far less revenue than they did last year. He said the district was asking the board to approve a preliminary budget that will be $80 million less than the final budget approved last September.
"With this budget, we obviously had to make provisions," Burke said.
He said since the district is in an extraordinary situation, they had to dip into the reserves in order to meet the needs of the schools, students and programs, which was $25 million. Although the use of reserves was needed for the 2013 tentative budget, Burke said the district maintained a fund balance of 7.5 percent, which is among some of the highest in any school district in the state.
Board member Jeanne Dozier said although the district is helping the economy, in order to support the schools they have to dip into reserves.
Board member Jane Kuckel said the district has to look at the big picture. She said although she is glad they have reserves to fill in where needed, she is wondering when that is going to end.
"I don't see the economy getting better," she said. "I think we have to have a discussion by the board of where we can cut back. We are going to run out of money in some point in time. I think there is something that has to take place to prevent us to go bankrupt in the next three years if the economy doesn't get better."
Burke agreed that the district cannot continue the trend of taking money out of the reserves.
"We cannot continue the trend of taking these kinds of dollars from reserves, we can't continue that trend," he said.
A few goals helped in guiding the district when constructing the 2013 tentative budget. Burke said they wanted to make sure the district continued to comply with the statewide classroom mandate.
"This district and board made a commitment to maintain its effort to meet the class size mandate," he said. "Our budget fully intends to do that. That requires classroom by classroom that we meet the state mandated class size requirement."
The second goal that Burke highlighted during the Tuesday night budget meeting was to provide salary increase for instructional and support employees.
The 2012-2013 tentative budget also included no program cuts in the district.
"We actually wanted to look at program enhancement in this budget," Burke said. "We are expanding some of our academy programs. We did want to maintain and expand programs that are beneficial to our students."
Discussion was also had about the changes that were made by the Florida Department of Education state board regarding FCAT, cut scores and the performance levels of the schools. Burke said the district identified a number of schools as priority schools, which means additional funding was allocated in the budget to improve instructional opportunities for students.
The latest amendment made to the No Child Left Behind Act changed schools in need to be termed priority or focus schools. He said the accountability requirements are based on state requirements, which forces the district to add additional staff at specific schools.
"We have several schools that fall into priority schools," Burke said. "We are required to provide additional support to those schools."
The additional support will be given by coaches who are designated by the accountability system to provide support to teachers in reading, math and science.
Dozier said this is another example of an unfunded mandate.
"This is a very costly endeavor," she said. "We need to keep a close track of expenditures."
Dozier asked Burke to keep a very close eye on what the cost figure is for the district.
"While this sounds great, there is no data that shows that this is the best way to fix this school," she said. "We need to find some way of tracking or measuring that it is doing what it is supposed to do to give to the state. I hope you have staff getting on that right away."
Burke said although placing coaches at schools in the district is not a new phenomenon, the requirement for additional support is new to them.
Unfortunately this will be a recurring cost for the district as long as it has schools classified as priority or focus schools.
The final budget public hearing will be held Sept. 11 at 5:05 p.m.