Committee that oversees referendum spending asks Collier School District to “show us the money”

— The Collier County School District asked voters to approve a referendum so they wouldn’t have to cut student programs.

Chief Operations Officer Michele LaBute reported to the committee charged with overseeing that money that no student programs were cut. In fact, the district even added some.

“We added lacrosse, which was a multiple-year request from parents. ... And we added inclusion teachers for some of our special needs programs,” she said.

Though the committee was pleased to hear LaBute’s report, they also had a message: Show us the money.

The district’s Independent Community Referendum Oversight Committee held its first official meeting of the 2009-10 school year Wednesday to look at how the district was spending its referendum dollars.

Last year, Collier voters passed the referendum, which decreases the district’s capital fund property taxes by 25 cents per $1,000 of property value in exchange for an equal increase to the district’s general fund property tax.

The passage of the referendum allows the district to spend more on operational costs, such as teacher salaries and educational programs, and less on capital costs, such as new schools and football fields.

The district collected about $17 million in its first year. The money is needed to keep Collier schools at status quo during a time when funds from the state are growing scarce, according to district officials.

Superintendent Dennis Thompson had said without the referendum, the district would have had to reduce non-state-mandated student programs and services, such as Advanced Placement classes; related arts classes like art and music; and technology classes in the elementary schools.

Voters passed the referendum with the understanding that with the money, the district would be able to keep the services and programs, and the Independent Community Referendum Oversight Committee has been entrusted to see that those dollars are spent appropriately.

So, rather than waste time listening to a budget presentation, members of the committee asked district officials to bring them information on how much it spends for the programs the referendum dollars are supposed to be helping.

“If it’s more than $17 million, we know the money is being used as it should be and if it is less than $17 million, it will be up to us to find out why and where the money went,” said Joe Paterno, chairman of the committee.

LaBute told the committee members she would be happy to accommodate their requests, but added that if student programs were dropped, the public would notice.

“These are visible programs,” she said. “They are important to someone because otherwise, we wouldn’t have them.”

Committee member William Starr also asked staff to bring the district’s policy on how it adds student programs.

The committee will meet again at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, which fulfills the mandate to meet once a quarter.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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