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$60M deficit makes school budget picture grim

LAND O'LAKES — The budget picture for Pasco County schools just keeps getting more dire.

School Board members knew when they adopted their current spending plan that $47 million of it would not be available again next year. It came from sources such as federal stimulus funds and a local property tax that voters rejected for renewal.

Now Florida lawmakers are talking about cuts beyond that amount, perhaps an additional $11 million. And the state Department of Education has asked the district to repay nearly $7 million for students who did not enroll as projected this year, as well as for enrollment adjustments found in audits of past years.

Chief financial officer Olga Swinson estimated that the board could be looking at running day-to-day operations in 2011-12 with as much as $60 million less than the $460 million they were allocated this year.

"It looks gloomy and it is going to be gloomy," said board member Steve Luikart, a retired assistant principal. "There are going to be some tough decisions."

Board members are scheduled to meet behind closed doors next week to talk about the possibilities. They'll focus on items that would require negotiations with the United School Employees of Pasco.

It's the starting point because 86 percent of the district's operating budget is spent on people. The remaining 14 percent includes many fixed costs, such as fuel, textbooks and utilities that the district cannot control or do without.

"You're not going to be able to make the cuts without impacting employees," said Summer Romagnoli, the district's government affairs supervisor.

Romagnoli has spent the past two months presenting the budget scenario to employees, concluding her final session on Wednesday. She said she tried to offer as many facts as possible to the faculty and staff members, so they will not be surprised when the news of cuts comes.

Some offered ideas of their own.

One of the popular ones, Romagnoli said, was to eliminate administration.

She noted that the district has 314 administrators with a total payroll of about $23 million. Even if every one of them were terminated, the district would still face cuts of more than $40 million, and it would not have people in critical positions such as school principal or payroll administrator.

Another proposal was to scale back or end student busing, and ask parents to drive their children to and from school. Florida law requires school districts to provide free transportation to children who live more than 2 miles from their schools, so that would require legislative action.

Swinson, meanwhile, told the board that the federal stimulus provided $32 million that paid for 633 school-based positions. She stressed that the jobs the funds covered are not necessarily the ones that would be cut, as some of them are required by federal law.

People hired into those positions "knew that the money would be gone at the end of this year," assistant superintendent Ruth Reilly said. "They also knew the district would have to make decisions about jobs, not necessarily their jobs."

Jobs are not the only thing on the table, though.

Board members said they would consider all the cost-cutting proposals that had emerged in past years but had not come to pass yet. Those ideas include cutting middle school and junior varsity athletics; eliminating courtesy bus rides for students living less than 2 miles from school; moving to a four-day school week; and reducing employee salaries and supplemental pay for jobs such as coaching.

"You've got to have some big money, so we've got to have some big ideas," assistant superintendent Renalia DuBose said.

One of those big ideas would have middle and high school teachers instruct six periods a day instead of the current five classes plus a planning period. Land O'Lakes High School teacher Robert Marsh urged the board not to go that direction, even though the associated savings is pegged at $12 million.

"We use all of our time as efficiently as we possibly can," Marsh said. "You've got to find this money someplace else besides off our backs."

Luikart said he would fight the idea, saying it's not good for students. Instead, he intended to look at other ways to save money with as little impact to schools as possible.

"I'm investigating the issue of what it is costing for unfunded and underfunded mandates . . . and what we can do about it as a district," Luikart said, although he refused to offer any specifics.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong reminded her colleagues that savings come in pennies as well as dollars.

Sixty-million dollars might be a lot of money to save, she said, but "we've got to look at the little items, too."

Board members said they want to have answers for employees as soon as possible, with an April deadline looming to renew contracts. So, as vice chairman Allen Altman said, expect the conversation at meetings and workshops for the next few months to be "budget, budget and budget."

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.

by the numbers

$47M Amount the School Board put in this year's spending plan that it knew would not be there next year.

$7M Amount the state has asked the district to repay for having fewer students than projected.

$60M Amount less the district may have to operate next school year.

$60M deficit makes school budget picture grim 02/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 8:49pm]

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