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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Business leaders helping to shape Pinellas budget, union contract

In recent months, the Pinellas Education Foundation has played a bigger role in the school district's budget cuts and contract talks, with members offering advice to top administration officials on the former and tapping a business consultant to meet with them on the latter.

The foundation is even considering hiring a part-time coordinator to continue the process of matching up business leaders with department heads to help transfer business practices into the district.

That way, "on a regular basis, we add some value in freeing up dollars to throw in the classroom," Craig Sher, who chairs the foundation board of directors, told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board today.

Some potential examples: Perhaps someone with Blue Cross Blue Shield or Humana could meet with the district to look at ways of bringing insurance costs down, Sher said. Or someone from Crown Automotive could look at transportation costs.

"We've been meeting with their team. These are good people. But we're experts in certain areas," Sher continued. "Some of the things that you heard about that they're cutting, I think were a direct result of our meetings, such as energy, transportation cuts, certainly contributions for health insurance."

Sher met with the editorial board along with foundation president Terry Boehm, vice chairman James Myers and past chair Gerald Hogan. They noted foundation efforts to beef up career and technical education, but also touched on more hot-button issues.

On labor issues, the foundation has sent consultant Alex McKenna of McKenna International to meet with Superintendent Julie Janssen and school board members as they get set to work out a new contract with the teachers union.

"The school district should have the most competent professional representation in negotiating this," Sher said. "The union is very, very professional, they're very good at what they do. And I think the district and the school board need to be equally or more so in bargaining the agreement. And I don't know that they have over the years."

The foundation listed some of the problems it sees with the current contract in this document that came out last week. Sher touched on some of them during the interview, including how little control principals have over hiring and firing.

He said the foundation asked a group of Pinellas teachers what percentage of teachers should be fired for poor performance - and the answer was 1 percent. But when a group of Pinellas principals was asked the same thing, they said 20 percent. "That's quite a disconnect," he said.

Sher said he agreed with union leaders who say the district needs more money, and said the foundation needs to "argue more for the children and get more money down here next year."

"But now's the time to change this contract," he continued. "It's controversial but we feel very strongly about it."

[Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011 3:32pm]


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