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$37 million in school budget cuts could be Pasco's best-case scenario

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County schools' worst-case budget scenario of a week ago has become its best looking scenario this week as Florida's economic outlook continues to darken.

"What we were told currently is that we could be cutting between $74 million and $37 million," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said Monday. "The $74 million is without the stimulus package, and the $37 million is with it."

She discounted Gov. Charlie Crist's more rosy budget plan, which projects Pasco to grow by nearly 800 students and see funding increase by $18 million.

The governor's numbers, Fiorentino said, do not jibe with the Department of Education's less optimistic revenue expectations. Crist is including future revenue sources that may or may not appear.

His enrollment figures are based on projections made in late 2008, while the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research was working on an update Monday.

"We'll be happy if we just stay at zero percent growth," as opposed to shrinking in 2009-10, Fiorentino said.

If Florida receives its full share of the federal stimulus package for education, Pasco stands to receive $8.6 million to help its most economically needy students and $13.8 million for special education programs.

The amount it might receive in "stabilization" funds is dependent on how the governor and state lawmakers decide to allocate the money.

'Keep thinking'

Fiorentino has been talking to lawmakers, encouraging them to give school districts maximum flexibility in how they spend the revenue. She noted, though, that changes in the way the districts may use capital funds won't benefit Pasco too much because the district has bonded much of its future tax revenue for construction projects, and repaying debt must come first.

At the same time, she's been meeting regularly with the district's finance staff, seeking ideas to rein in spending and reallocate resources more effectively.

Large pieces of paper covered with numbers, program names and question marks are plastered to her office wall. Printed prominently at the bottom are the words, "KEEP THINKING."

Already, the district has taken many steps to reduce spending, including a pay freeze and a hiring freeze.

Fiorentino is reviewing all 64 requests to remain on the job from employees who have gone through the state's early retirement DROP program. The idea is since they have chosen to retire, most will go.

"In some cases, we may choose to keep some DROP extension people," Fiorentino said.

Overall, the superintendent doesn't want to make broad budget pronouncements — unlike leaders in some other districts — until she has a firm grip on how much money the district might have.

"But our best-case scenario right now is (cuts of) $37 million," she said. "There will be future cuts coming."

For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

$37 million in school budget cuts could be Pasco's best-case scenario 02/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2009 9:13pm]
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