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Budget cuts may force more Pinellas school closings, superintendent says

Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen said Wednesday that more school closings are possible as the district grapples with $26 million in budget cuts next year and potentially $53 million the year after that.

After closing or consolidating 10 schools this year, the district promised it would not consider more closings for 2010-11, Janssen told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. But given the magnitude of cuts ahead, the district must look at the possibility for 2011-12, she said.

The recent closings and consolidations save about $6 million a year.

"This is not temporary," Janssen said of coming cuts. "Whatever we do now we have to add to it to get to the $53 million for the following budget."

Some cuts are already happening.

The principals at Gibbs, Lakewood, St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor University high schools were told this week that their magnet teachers would no longer earn hefty salary supplements for academic coaching. The supplements amounted to 14 percent of base salaries and were specific to teachers in the four programs.

"We just don't have that luxury anymore," said Janssen. "I know it's not a popular decision. I just don't know where else to go for the money."

About 100 to 120 teachers will be affected, Janssen said, who added that the district will save nearly $700,000.

At least 20 teachers in the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs will be hit, said principal Kevin Gordon, who is planning to tell them today.

The reaction is "not going to be good," he said.

The Gibbs teachers earned the extra money by helping students with projects and show productions, he said. But will they continue to do so without the supplement? "I'm not sure how this is going to work itself out," Gordon said.

Janssen did not mention the pay cuts during her visit to the editorial board because she wasn't sure if those affected had been notified yet. The Times obtained a memo about them later in the day and called her seeking further details and comment.

To save money next year, Janssen did suggest that the district's "arterial" bus service, located on busy roads, will be limited to magnet students and to high school seniors who don't attend their zoned schools.

She also said the district will take a hard look at increasing employees' share of health insurance costs.

Those costs now total about $120 million, with the district picking up nearly 82 percent. Janssen said the staff is looking at the amount that could be saved by reducing the district share to 75 or 80 percent.

"The biggest pot of money is in our insurance," she said. "If we could get $15 million out of that, then we'd be there without (furloughs)."

Pinellas has cut $104 million from core spending over the last four years, due to lower state funding and shrinking enrollment. The $26 million that must be cut for next year assumes the district can absorb $14.4 million needed to meet class size requirements. It also assumes the school board will again vote to levy an optional quarter-mil hike in property taxes, which raised about $15 million this year.

The picture is more stark for 2011-12.

That budget will be $38 million in the hole when federal stimulus money runs out next spring. And the district cannot extend the quarter-mil hike into 2011-12 without voter approval.

More details about potential cuts will surface at a school board workshop next week. But parents are already growing antsy.

Janssen said the district is "probably eliminating" some arterial bus service to save up to $3 million. If that includes service to Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School, Sandy Titone said she did not know if she could afford to keep her daughter there.

An unemployed caretaker, Titone lives 12 miles from Marshall. And her 1995 Nissan Quest gets about 10 miles to the gallon. Do the math, she said.

"That's going to be at least one-and-a-half tank fulls a week," she said. "That's not going to be very fun at all."

Janssen also told the Times board that changes are under way at Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins and Lakewood high schools, the three D-rated schools that will join Gibbs in coming under more state oversight this fall.

"The key is to get a leader who has a vision and sets very high expectations for every teacher," she said. "And then we have to get the best teachers to come there."

Given state requirements, the district had no choice but to replace popular Lakewood principal Dennis Duda, Janssen said. Whether the principals at Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins remain will depend on this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results.

"If you look at the progress they've made in some areas, it's significant," Janssen said. "But sometimes I think it's good to just start over, because it may just need a brand-new idea, fresh thinking, for a school to change."

The teachers at those schools are also coming under more scrutiny.

Thirteen teachers on annual contracts at Gibbs, and another eight to 10 each at Lakewood and Boca Ciega, will not have their contracts renewed, Janssen said.

She suggested it wasn't fair to place those teachers, many of them early in their careers, into some of the districts's toughest schools. But the district was bound by its union contract that gives weight to seniority when teachers are placed.

Times staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Budget cuts may force more Pinellas school closings, superintendent says 05/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 12:14am]

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