Broward Schools Face Their Toughest Budget Yet - Will Other Districts Be Hit Next?

HOLLYWOOD (9-9-2011) -

Every school district in Florida is dealing with layoffs and budget cuts. But Broward County in South Florida is facing a budget deficit of more than $140 million.

It's forced teachers and students in the nation's 6th largest school district to get creative about spending money.

On a recent school day, students at South Broward High in Hollywood were waiting in the rain to get inside what used to be the video production classroom.

Except 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 choas.

“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.

This year the district eliminated the jobs of 14,000 teachers and about 1,000 other district employees.

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 percent. Compare that to the 6 percent 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.

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, 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, says he didn't know this was going on. But he says 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.

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, demographic data and class grades.

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.

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