bishop-victor-t-curry_fc.jpgMIAMI – More than 800 people packed the Joseph Caleb Center auditorium in Liberty City this week to protest millions of dollars in impending cuts that are slated for Miami-Dade County schools.

The Miami-Dade School Board met on Wednesday, May 21 to discuss more than $30 million in cuts, out of more than $70 million in reductions to come. The cuts are required to balance the school system’s budget in the wake of the passage of Amendment 1, which reduced property taxes statewide. Voters approved the measure by a wide margin in January.

As a result, the Miami-Dade School District must cut nearly $300 million from its K-12 budget for the 2008-2009 school year. State legislators approved more than $2.3 billion in education across Florida during the session that closed on May 2.

The school board on May 21 voted against a plan to eliminate 516 positions within the school district, according to The Miami Herald.

The cuts would have included 241 central office positions, 235 transportation positions, 28 assistant principal positions and 12 sworn police officer positions, and would have saved the district about $33 million, the newspaper reported.

Now the board must find another place to  make the cuts.

Bishop Victor T. Curry, president of the Miami-Dade NAACP, presided over the May 19 meeting of his organization.

He demanded that Gov. Charlie Crist  call a special legislative session “no later than August 1st,’’ to address potential layoffs, service cuts and “reductions in services and educational standards’’ as a result of the reduced budget.

“As a civic community, we will not stand idly by and accept practices that have the potential to bankrupt public education in the state of Florida,’’ Curry said.

Addressing questions to a panel that included members of the Miami-Dade School Board and the school superintendent’s office, Curry blasted the state’s political leadership, including Crist, for what he called broken promises and misplaced priorities in Tallahassee.

He joined panel members in criticizing the state’s decision to cut taxes for wealthy investors, and to spend some $300 million constructing three new prisons, while cutting school funding.

“The governor promised to hold education harmless when he campaigned for Amendment 1,’’ Curry said, quoting a newspaper article. But “the message is loud and clear. We’re not interested in educating your children, but we’re certainly interested in incarcerating your children.’’

Curry called on those assembled to deluge Crist and their state and local representatives with phone calls and emails demanding action to reverse the cuts.

“And if they do not, it’s time for us to register, and vote them out of office,’’ Curry said.

To punctuate the statement, the NAACP conducted voter registration for an hour prior to the meeting.

State Sen. Fredrica S. Wilson, an NAACP board member and a former Miami-Dade school board member, blamed the budget shortfall on tax cuts for wealthy Florida investors dating back to Gov. Jeb Bush’s tenure.

Wilson pledged to push for the special session, and added, “This is just the first round of cuts. Just wait ‘til portability kicks in.’’

She was referring to additional measures in Amendment 1 that allow homeowners to transfer up to $500,000 of their Save Our Homes property tax benefit to another home, which could mean more property tax money fleeing the county.

Wilson, a vocal opponent of the FCAT, said the state should use the $60 million it spends to administer the test each year on improving schools instead.

Miami-Dade Deputy School Superintendent for Operations Ofelia San Pedro, whose job is to ensure that the district's budget is balanced by the June deadline, said the cuts wouldn’t be easy. Already, Florida spends just $7,200 per student annually on education, San Pedro said, placing the state “almost dead last in the U.S.’’

The additional cuts would drop per pupil spending to around $7,000.

“The last thing you want to do is lay off any employee,’’ San Pedro said.

And yet, the district must make $73 million in cuts, on top of $70 million in cuts that were implemented in March. Some panelists on May 19 expressed concern that cuts could ultimately involve reduced bus service, and layoffs of janitorial, food service, public safety, administrative and teaching staff.

“We don't have the money,’’ recently appointed School Board member Wilbert “Tee’’ Holloway told the anxious crowd, which included hundreds of Miami-Dade teachers and parents and NAACP members as well as elected officials, including District 3 County Commissioner Audrey Edmonsen.

“These are hard decisions, but we have to make them,’’ Holloway said.

“Miami-Dade gets $30 million from the state,’’ Associate Superintendent for School Operations Freddie Woodsen said. “There’s no way we can go into the school year without a balanced budget, so we have to do what we have to do.’’

None of the panelists addressed specific cuts.

But all of them, including Miami Carol City Senior High School teacher Paul Moore, Miami-Dade NAACP Youth Council President Terika Hutchinson – currently a senior in high school – and United Teachers of Dade Secretary-Treasurer Frederick Ingram, lamented the impact further budget cuts could have on everything from graduation rates (already below 50 percent for black students in Florida), to student safety.

“This is an all-out assault on public education,’’ Ingram said. “State law says it’s the paramount duty of the state to provide an adequate education’’ to the state’s students. “They're not doing their job.’’

Curry, who said the Miami-Dade NAACP would soon draft a letter to the governor calling for the special legislative session about the school funding cuts, added, “When the goal and the objective is to dismantle public education, then they are doing exactly what they set out to do. The only question is, how in God’s name are we going to stop them?’’

Photo by Khary Bruyning • Bishop Victor T. Curry