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Schools can do better with less money

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Input from principals and community groups was sought to help determine $55 million in cuts at the individual school level.

"It's like asking your kids to cut their allowance," Ms. Marte says, "but that's a good way to be innovative.... Let them decide what they can and can't live without."

A growing number of districts are placing such decisions in school leaders' hands.

"If [top administrators] say you have to fire all your librarians, but you happen to have this really great librarian who's doing more for reading instruction than anyone else ... it's not really useful," says Marguerite Roza, a senior scholar at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education. The flexibility "allows the school to ... maybe even do things better."

Though crediting the superintendent with reducing a top-heavy administration, Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade union, says she's frustrated by claims that the cuts have not harmed the classroom.

Arts and vocational classes, for example, don't keep up with demand from students, she says, and often lack supplies. And new teachers were hired as temps last year, delaying their ability to build seniority and become vested in the pension.

"Our teachers and educational support professionals are really holding up [more than their share of] the system," Ms. Aronowitz says. A new contract is under negotiation.

Overall, the budget team says, there's been a spirit of cooperation throughout the district. But they also fielded accusations that they didn't care about kids.

After decades of growth in the district, enrollments have been declining in recent years, but "it finally took a new superintendent and a crisis to say, 'you do need to shrink, and ... it's time to start putting your money where kids get the most bang for their buck,' " says assistant chief budget officer Ron Steiger.

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