Business leaders propose cost-saving ideas to Pinellas schools

Fresher cafeteria food. Fewer portable classrooms. Limiting payouts for sick leave. Cutting 5 percent of district staffers and compressing the teacher pay scale.

Those are among the ideas being pitched today to the Pinellas County School Board by a coalition of business leaders. The goal is to get more money into the classroom, said Jim Myers, chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation.

"It's their job, not ours, to make decisions," he said.

This is the second "Savings for Classrooms" report to come out of the foundation, a business-led nonprofit that raises money for schools. The timing is perfect: School Board members are getting their first in-depth look today at the proposed $1.2 billion budget for the coming year. The tentative budget will be adopted in July, with final budget approval in September.

The proposed spending plan, which is about on par with last year's, wasn't available on the district's website Wednesday.

Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said the district is taking a more strategic view of the budget than it has in previous years, starting with a couple of basic questions: "What does it take to run a school system?" and "How do we fund it?"

The district isn't looking at big budget cuts, as it has in past years. Neither is it flush with excess cash. Superintendent Mike Grego, who wasn't available for comment Wednesday, has preached using money efficiently, always with an eye on how expenses relate to student achievement.

The foundation presented its first report to the school district last year after 32 business and government leaders from outside the school system met dozens of times. Their work centered around six main areas, including construction, energy, health insurance and transportation.

Several of those ideas were adopted by the district, including selling some vacant land and buildings and getting rid of some portable classrooms.

This year, 20 more business leaders joined the group's efforts, adding four areas of concern. Those were food service, management and labor relations, technology, and organizational structure. Myers said it was a "top-notch group" of volunteers.

The food service committee, for instance, recommended improving the quality of school lunches to drive demand, particularly with the "more demanding" high school students and faculty. One suggestion was to "add some flavorful homemade sauces and dressings."

Business leaders on the labor relations committee suggested condensing the teacher salary schedule and eliminating automatic salary progression. They said the current setup makes it harder to recruit teachers with particular expertise.

Cook said some of the suggestions are valid, while others, such as compressing the pay scale, are more complex than they appear to outsiders. That suggestion, in particular, would be subject to negotiations with the teachers union.

"Some of the things that were proposed would be good in a perfect world, but we can't (do them) because of laws or other limitations," she said.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

Business leaders propose cost-saving ideas to Pinellas schools 06/26/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 27, 2013 1:33pm]

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