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Beachland facing possible teacher cutbacks

Beachland Elementary, the barrier island’s only public school and one of only 26 in Florida to have been rated an “A” school by the state for the past 10 years, is looking at possible teacher cuts for the coming year after being ordered by Indian River School Superintendent Harry La Cava to find ways to carve out 10 percent from its current $2.81 million budget.

“You can’t make that kind of cut in a school budget with (just) crayons and paper,” said Principal Carol Wilson. “We’re looking at a loss of personnel. To maintain the quality of what we are doing with less will be difficult.” While Wilson hopes an increase in volunteers might help offset any staff reductions, PTA President Monica Jennings warns that because of the difficult economic climate, “this year has been tougher to get volunteers than ever before, and volunteers have had difficulty keeping their commitments. Things have been getting in the way like moms having to go back to work.”

Just how hard cutbacks will hit Beachland – which serves all the kindergarten through 5th grade kids on the barrier island who attend public school as well as a smaller number of pupils from nearby mainland neighborhoods – will not be known until the Florida Legislature decides later this spring how deeply it is going to cut funding to education when it writes next year’s budget.

But projecting an estimated $14 million cut in funding for the 2009-2010 school year, Superintendent La Cava has instructed all principals in the district to prepare a 10 percent cost-cutting budget estimate. La Cava and his 13-member Leadership Council, consisting of all assistant superintendents and school district department heads, will subsequently determine final budget plans for the upcoming school year.

“All programs and positions are at risk,” La Cava said at a public meeting to discuss the budget cuts. And with the school district already having made cuts a year ago, staff positions are at real risk this time around since labor costs make up about 85 percent of the annual budget.

Beachland, the highest rated elementary school in Indian River County for the past decade, lists 39 teachers, four administrators, two teacher assistants and 14 other staff members in the school’s website directory for this year. Currently, seven teachers and one staff member are non-contract employees – personnel employed by the school district fewer than three years whose jobs are at greatest risk.

These positions are highly vulnerable because the district must adhere to contract provisions already in place with the teacher’s union. La Cava has sent letters to all those holding non-contract positions at district schools to notify them of the situation. April 30 is the anticipated date when the Indian River County school district will notify those whose positions are being eliminated.

Beyond the implications for the next school year, PTA President Jennings is concerned over the impact the current uncertainty is having on Beachland’s non-contract teachers.

“The budget cuts are as serious as they can be,” said Jennings. “If teachers are worried about keeping their jobs and feeding their families or in cases where both spouses are in the school system, worried about each other, this trickles down to the kids.”

One area Principal Wilson is looking at carefully as she develops Beachland’s cost-cutting plan is class size. The state presently requires kindergarten through third-grade classes to be limited to 18 students and fourth- and fifth-grade classes to have no more than 22.

“Our district is very progressive and has complied with this mandate for several years,” said Wilson. If the Legislature changes the mandate to allow more students per class, this could mean a cutback in the number of teachers.

“Beachland is a school with a history and tradition of excellence and we work hard as a team,” Wilson said. “To maintain the quality of what we are doing with less will be difficult.”

One area where Wilson hopes to see an increase is in volunteers to help Beachland weather any budget shortfalls. Once a month, Wilson meets with the school’s PTA board.

“They are an amazing group. They do so much for the school. The priority of the PTA is to be an advocate for children. Fundraising is an aside,” she said.

Monica Jennings joined the Beachland PTA when her third-grade son, Jackson, was in kindergarten. Because Monica is originally from New Orleans, she was invited to help out with a Mardi Grasthemed fundraiser in the 2005-2006 academic year. Following this event, she was asked to join the PTA board as president of events, and she is now serving in her second year as president of the PTA.

The time commitment for her role as PTA president ebbs and flows at different times of the year, but there are busy periods when she is devoting 40 hours a week to the job. Monica’s daughter, Isabel, 5, will be entering Beachland next year as a kindergartner.

Jennings has no problems giving her time as she sees the commitment of the teaching staff at the school. “The dedication of the staff at Beachland is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” she said.

The latest anticipated cuts to the school district’s budget follow five previous reductions during the past two years. Deputy Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer Michael Degutis pointed out at the public meeting that 2008 was the “first time in 37 years that state funding has gone backwards.”

Degutis and La Cava emphasized that throughout the past two years of cutbacks, school district officials have worked to maintain the district’s overall vision. La Cava said that in the present school year, a number of cost-saving initiatives were implemented, such as not filling vacant positions, indefinitely suspending exemplary bonuses for non-bargaining employees and reducing assistant principal contracts to eleven months.

Jennings and her PTA board have debated and revised decisions on spending over the past two years in response to the cuts. “The splashy things bring in money, but teachers, who don’t make that much to begin with, are spending their own money on basics like paper, tissues and printer ribbon.”

Last year the Beachland PTA donated a sound system for the cafeteria and 22 laptops for a mobile computer lab, with two additional laptops donated to the Gifford Youth Activity Center. This year, the goal is to raise money for a sophisticated science lab to include microscopes, scales, and books, but when news of funding cuts was announced, teachers gave the PTA a wish list of basic supplies.

The PTA decided to split their budget 70/30 between the science lab and the teacher requests.

Indian River County’s local funding for schools has enabled it to impose fewer cuts thus far than most other Florida counties. Throughout the state, other districts have eliminated or re-structured positions at all levels, made changes in bus routes, as well as reduced programs, athletic team travel, salaries, benefits and training.

The present conditions in the financial and housing markets, a decline in the overall student population in Florida, and additional expected declines in state revenue were among the factors mentioned by La Cava in instructing principals to prepare for the 10 percent cuts in the coming budget cycle.

La Cava also has issued a call to action to school employees, parents and the public to get involved with the school system. He said he aims to enlist the local business community, foundations, chambers, the Education Council, parents, employees, unions, and concerned residents in a team effort to preserve quality public education in Indian River County.

“We need volunteers,” said School District public information officer Patty Vasquez. “Prior to 2004, we had more volunteers in the schools, but many people moved after the hurricanes.”

At Beachland, volunteer coordination is a team effort between assistant principal Caroline Barker and the PTA. Barker manages academic and mentoring volunteers. Academic volunteers assist teachers in the classroom and provide tutoring. Mentoring volunteers are partnered with individual students to spend an hour or more a week of time and also to participate in social gatherings at Christmas and in the spring with their assigned students.

The PTA organizes supervisory volunteers, who help out in non-academic areas, including traffic control, field trips, and student and PTA activities.

The Beachland PTA organizes fundraising events throughout the year, including four skate nights, a wrapping paper drive, and a spring social, which features a silent auction.

In May, a new Beachland PTA Board will be elected. Jennings plans to be out of office and able to devote time to Isabel’s kindergarten classroom next year. It will be up to the new PTA board members to begin debating and determining next year’s needs, once the total effect of the budget cut is known, sometime in mid-summer. The new board will also decide if formerly just-for-fun occasions like the annual Fall Festival will be restructured as fundraising events.

“A well educated child grows into a well educated adult. It’s a cycle,” Jennings said. Reflecting on the increased necessity for community involvement in the public schools, she adds, “Blessed individuals have an obligation to support the future. As adults, we are so lucky to live in this community, we owe it to the kids at school to give of our resources, whether it is chunks of time devoted to an individual child in a mentoring program for reading or math or a financial donation to the school PTA.”