With the district's budget in a historically tight squeeze, Pinellas schools superintendent Julie Janssen plans to pump millions of dollars into struggling middle and high schools.
The only problem, some say, is that the money will be pumped out of struggling elementary schools.
"There's no way we can not feel the effects of this budget cut. I'm not Houdini," said Lisa Roth, the principal at Belcher Elementary, which stands to lose about $350,000 in personnel and services. "The challenge is for it to be as painless as possible."
At issue is money from the federal Title I program, which sends tens of millions of dollars to high-poverty schools every year.
For years, Pinellas has used that money for elementary schools alone, thinking that investments in earlier grades will pay dividends later. But now Janssen plans to give slices of the Title I pie to some middle and high schools, which as a whole perform worse than elementary schools on the FCAT and in school grades.
Under Janssen's plan, the number of high-poverty schools dividing the money will grow from 48 this year to 68 next year. That includes nine high schools and 13 middle schools.
The big whammy is this: The district has used the money to pay for four positions at each Title I school: a reading coach, a math/science coach, a Title I facilitator and an "intervention" teacher who worked in small groups or one on one with struggling students. It then divvied up the rest of the money among all the Title I schools.
Under Janssen's plan, the district will no longer pay for those positions "off the top." If schools want to keep those positions, they'll have to dip into their Title I money, find other money, or work out arrangements with other Title I schools, such as co-funding and sharing some of those positions.
"I can probably hold one of the four," said Paula Texel, principal at Bear Creek Elementary in St. Petersburg.
The school got $215,000 in Title I money last year, on top of the four positions. Next year it's slated to get $177,000 — without the four.
Meanwhile, the percentage of Bear Creek kids eligible for free and reduced lunch is expected to rise, from 81 to 84 percent.
"I'm concerned I won't be able to provide my kids with everything they need," Texel said. "It's just going to take some creativity."
Schools have until May 7 to submit plans for next year's funding. Technically, the School Board must still okay the overall plan, but several principals said the change was presented to them as a done deal, not a proposal.
In announcing the plan, Janssen said dollars are growing scarce and schools must better scrutinize programs to see what's working and what's not. School Board chairwoman Janet Clark agreed.
"We probably have a lot of places in Title I that money is not being spent wisely," she said. "I think we really need to take a close look at all the different programs (and) who we're funding."
Gleeful, stoic, worried
Some middle and high school principals are giddy about the possibilities.
Mary Conage, the district's Title I director, anticipates they'll be using their newfound money for things like longer school days and extra teachers.
Gibbs High is slated to get $797,000 next year, more than any other school. Principal Kevin Gordon said he plans to use the bulk of that money to hire 10 or more teachers who can work with struggling students in small groups.
"We're going to be able to drill down and do more individualized instruction for the kids," he said.
The mood is less upbeat at some elementary schools.
At Belcher, some of the Title I-funded staffers cried when the principal broke the news. At other schools, they were stoic.
"There is a certain amount of worry," said Bear Creek reading coach Donna Logan, who will return to the classroom next year and try to do some coaching on the side. But "we just have to utilize the resources the best we can."
Although the Title I changes will lead to lost positions, it's widely assumed that most if not all of the people filling them will land positions elsewhere in the district.
But concerns go beyond personnel. Some worry that the district is hurting itself in the long run.
"The greatest need is at the elementary schools. Early intervention," said School Board member Mary Brown. "I feel that if we are doing a good job there, then we won't continue to feed children into the system who aren't on grade level."
Board members Linda Lerner and Nina Hayden appear to be leaning in favor of Janssen's proposal, but say they need to see more details. The board will take a closer look at the plan at a May workshop before voting on it.
Schools won't be holding their breath.
"We'll deal with it," said Roth, the principal at Belcher. "I don't have an alternative."
Times researcher Connie Humburg and staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.