State: more cuts planned; tax referendum faces challenge
By By PAUL KEANE – Special to The Standard
In what Escambia County Schools Superintendent Melvin "Buck" Powell called "another nail in the coffin," school districts across the state learned last week that another six percent cut in funding from the state is expected for next school year.
Combined with more than $800,000 in normal increases in benefits for employees and teachers, the Escambia County district is now facing a nearly $2 million shortfall for the next school year. All of this while administrators called for a referendum asking voters to approve a 10 mill property tax increase for local education funding.
State Superintendent of Schools Ed Richardson informed superintendents across the state of the additional cuts in state funding during a meeting earlier this week in Montgomery. Powell said it's just another blow to school districts everywhere.
Powell said he plans to survive through next year, but if voters don't approve the property tax referendum that cuts could come during the 2004-2005 school year.
Powell said a 10 mill increase in property taxes - equivalent to about $100 a year for about 75 percent of the population in Escambia County - would help alleviate the problems and begin the healing.
Powell admits that getting the measure on a ballot by May could be a challenge, as two local legislators are not attending this session of the Legislature due to illness.
State Senator Pat Lindsey is expected to miss most or all of the session after undergoing open heart surgery a few weeks ago. State Representative "Skippy" White is also out of the session due to back surgery.
Representatives Seth Hammett and Greg Albritton have both said they will do everything they can to pass the measure and allow county residents to vote, but getting the bill through the Senate will be the challenge.
Powell said the state could come in and close programs and schools, much like it did this week when it announced the closing of eight Birmingham-area schools for next school year.
Powell said he is taking a pre-emptive strike, and plans to announce cost-cutting measures by the end of this month.