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Budget worries dominate Pasco school district in 2010

LAND O'LAKES — For the third straight year, Pasco County school district officials were consumed with budget battles.

Shrinking state revenue and steadily increasing prices led the School Board to dip into reserves and redirect previously dedicated funds in order to cover a shortfall of nearly $28 million.

District employees bore much of the cost, seeing their insurance benefits shrink and getting no raises as the board sought to avoid layoffs. Board members used one-time sources of money, including federal stimulus dollars and a local-option property tax increase, to cover some of the expenses.

That allowed the district to forestall some of the most undesired moves, such as furloughs, additional teaching periods and program reductions. As the year wound to an end, though, district officials already had begun warning employees that the financial picture looks to worsen in 2011.

Voters statewide rejected a November ballot measure to ease Florida's class-size rules, which will require the district to spend millions to maintain small classes. County voters, meanwhile, did not approve the School Board's request to extend the local-option property tax. And Congress appears unlikely to renew federal stimulus funds for another round.

That scenario has fueled talk of continued pay freezes, possible job losses and program cuts amid ongoing contract disputes. The United School Employees of Pasco declared negotiations at an impasse in mid November.

All this played out as schools faced increasing demands on their productivity and accountability.

Ridgewood and Anclote high schools ran along the ragged edge of those expectations. Each school investigated and implemented major academic changes during 2010 after seeing poor results in their past year student test scores. Ridgewood was included on the list of Florida's lowest-performing schools, while Anclote became Pasco's first F school in a decade of state grading of public schools.

The principals of each school said they saw improvements coming slowly, and looked forward to better results on the spring 2011 FCAT and other related measures.

One area where Ridgewood saw early indications of success was its graduation rate, which improved significantly from spring 2009 to spring 2010. The school, along with several others, followed a statewide trend in getting more teens through to a diploma within four years.

The district's dropout rate also shrank to just 1 percent, according to the state.

Ramon Suarez, the district's supervisor of graduation enhancement programs, said his office would continue to work with schools to refine programs and improve the percentage of students successfully completing high school. One idea that gained traction during the year was placing special attention on freshmen, to make their transition from middle school more seamless.

Early data from Mitchell High, which piloted the academy program, convinced Wesley Chapel High to adopt the idea and prompted many other high schools, including Anclote, to take a look for the coming year.

Into this mix of budget woes, labor unrest and academic change came a new majority on the School Board.

Three-term veteran board member Cathi Martin, who had been criticized for missing numerous meetings, announced in January she would not seek re-election. A month later, one-termer Frank Parker said he would retire, too. They joined Kathryn Starkey, who resigned to unsuccessfully seek a seat in the Florida House, in assuring the board of three novice members during this volatile time.

After months of campaigning and two elections, retired assistant principal Steve Luikart, real estate agent and former teacher Cynthia Armstrong, and real estate marketing director Alison Crumbley won the board seats. They immediately got to work in an executive session to discuss the union's impasse declaration.

The budget promises to soak up much of their time. But the board also is expected to weigh in on issues including charter school oversight, middle and high school scheduling and a host of other matters.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Budget worries dominate Pasco school district in 2010 12/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 28, 2010 8:51pm]
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