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Budget cuts will be painful, Pasco School Board is told

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County school district leaders expect a fourth straight year of state budget cuts to inflict pain on local classrooms in the fall.

"Last time we said anything that affects students or classrooms is off the table," superintendent Heather Fiorentino told the School Board during a workshop Tuesday. "We can't do that this year."

Taxpayers are likely to feel the pinch, too, as lawmakers are talking about forcing local school districts to increase their tax rates to cover the anticipated holes. They also are talking about requiring school boards to charge an additional 25 cents per $1,000 of property value for capital projects, and then transfer that money into operations.

This year, boards could choose whether to assess that added amount. Pasco declined.

"So they're going to blackmail us," board member Frank Parker said on hearing the news.

Overall, early indications are that the district could experience a combination of shrinking revenue and growing expenses that translate into a shortfall of at least $50-million. And that's before taking into account any decrease in the local property tax roll or any additional teachers hired to allow the district to comply with the state's class size reduction amendment.

State education officials have told Fiorentino that the schools are expected to fully comply with the amendment by October, although lawmakers are looking into ways to scale back the requirements with a November vote. The district would have to come up with the estimated $13-million needed to cover the cost of compliance, she said.

Board members told Fiorentino they expect to have detailed conversations about the decisions that must come to make ends meet. They made clear they do not want to wait until summer to talk about cuts.

"We can't wait to make some of these decisions retroactively," vice chairwoman Joanne Hurley said. "We're going to have to decide in advance worst-case scenario."

Fiorentino already has asked for ideas from the United School Employees of Pasco and from school principals and other administrators.

She noted that the choices could be tough, as many items are outside the district's control. The district's dental insurer, for instance, has indicated that rates will go up 40 percent to 60 percent, depending upon the plan chosen.

Meantime, the district has reduced its administrative ranks, cut back on items such as cell phones, and gone without raises or step increases for two years.

"There is no fat," Fiorentino said. "We are definitely at the core of our apple."

"Well, it looks like we're going to have to spit some seeds, doesn't it?" Parker responded.

In 2007-08, the district collected $477-million in general revenue for operations. In 2008-09, that amount dropped to $461-million. The following year, the district's general revenue totaled $454-million including $23-million from the federal stimulus package.

The stimulus funds are expected to be available for one more year before disappearing. The state has not put forth any proposal to make up for the difference.

In other business, the Pasco School Board:

• Learned that the Athenian Academy charter school had made significant enough academic progress to qualify for an automatic two-year extension in its contract with the district.

• Heard that the Countryside Montessori charter school is requesting to add seventh and eighth grades to its offerings. The school has yet to make a formal request.

• Received information about changing the school district's Web site to something easier to remember. One concern is being able to differentiate from the Pasco school district in Washington state. No decision was made.

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

Budget cuts will be painful, Pasco School Board is told 03/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 9:00pm]
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