BROOKSVILLE — Jodi Van Slee choked back tears as she stood at the lectern in her nursing scrubs and pleaded with the Hernando County School Board earlier this month.
Van Slee lives in Royal Highlands, about a mile and a half away from the new Weeki Wachee High School. Her son will start as a freshman there in August, and her daughter is a year behind him.
Van Slee came because she heard that the board was thinking about eliminating bus service for students who live within 2 miles of school. Her family lives on a limerock road with no sidewalks or streetlights and few neighbors who might be able to carpool. Her work hours are unpredictable.
"I know that times are tough and you need to cut somewhere in the budget, but please think about the kids who have to walk to these schools or ride their bikes," she said. "Please, please think about our children before you make this cut."
Times are certainly tough for the Hernando school district — so tough, in fact, that cuts are being made everywhere to close an $11.4 million shortfall in the 2011-12 budget.
From the amount of paper each school uses to superintendent Bryan Blavatt's salary, everything is a target. Not only is courtesy busing on the way out, so are a number of programs and electives as principals follow Blavatt's directive to cut 10 percent of their staffing allocations.
On the way in: fees to participate in activities and athletics.
The School Board met for its first budget workshop earlier this month and gave initial approval to Blavatt's recommendations. They meet for their second and final workshop Tuesday.
Blavatt calls it "a paradigm shift," a new era that will force students and parents to reconsider what they can expect the school district to do for them.
"We haven't been able to spare anyone in this thing," he said last week.
Courtesy busing sacred no more
Even as the budget tightened in the last couple of years, School Board members have summarily dismissed the idea of cutting courtesy busing. Hernando County's sidewalk network is lacking, especially in rural areas. In more populated neighborhoods, board members shuddered at the thought of youngsters negotiating busy intersections.
"Those are the children I really worry about," board member Cynthia Moore said at recent workshop.
More than 2,400 students take advantage of the service, an expense that is not covered by the state. Cutting it would save $810,000.
Board members supported a suggestion by transportation director Linda Smith to hire 16 more crossing guards for the county's busiest intersections, reducing the savings to about $700,000.
Blavatt said he understands the plights of parents like Van Slee. But in the more than four decades he's spent in education, he said, people have always found a way to get their children to school.
"Parents will get together and work together," Blavatt said. "We're pretty resilient. Schools and school districts have been kicked around and have had to deal with (cuts) for years."
Programs, positions on the chopping block
Blavatt's order to cut 10 percent of their staffing allocations came after schools already had started to downsize to cope with the last couple of years of budget woes.
Scanning the list of cuts at each school, one area stands out: exceptional education teachers and staff.
All told, schools are losing more than two dozen ESE teaching positions and nine paraprofessionals. Most of those were funded with federal stimulus dollars that dried up this year, and the staffers hired at the time were told the positions might be eliminated. At least some of the certified teachers are expected to shift back into other posts as the district continues to work to meet state class size mandates for core subjects.
The district is required by law to provide exceptional education services and still has the staff to do that, Blavatt said. He acknowledged, though, that losing so many hands in an area of education that benefits from lower student-to-teacher ratios is far from ideal.
The same goes for custodial staff, he said. To meet their 10 percent goal, principals are cutting nearly a dozen positions districtwide.
Like exceptional education services, the cleanliness of schools is "non-negotiable," Blavatt said.
"We're just going to have to stretch people more and more and more," he said.
Like courtesy busing, though, some programs and services have been more than stretched. They've been snapped, eliminated altogether because of shrinking staffs and tougher class size mandates. This is especially true at the high school level.
Central High School has eliminated its automotive program. Springstead has cut its construction technology and French programs, though French will still be offered on computers through the district's new e-School franchise, said principal Susan Duval.
Springstead's construction teacher resigned suddenly last school year, and a substitute filled in until the end of school, Duval said. At that point, she said, she made a tough choice: lay off a current staffer or leave the construction teaching job unfilled.
She opted to leave a vacant position open and save a job.
The program had been popular, maxing out at six sections of 24 students each. For now, all of the tools and other equipment are staying put, Duval said.
"If I get to the situation where I can start adding people to the staff, whenever that might be, that's one position I would put right back in," she said.
In some cases, students working toward certificates in these programs can attend courses at other high schools. Central's automotive students, for example, might head to Hernando High or Nature Coast Technical High. Springstead's construction students might find room at Nature Coast.
Steve Barton, a retired teacher who volunteered this past year to help with the Springstead construction program, worries that some of these students might fall through the cracks. It was heart-wrenching to tell them that the program is no more, he said.
"I understand it's push come to shove here, but a lot of them say, 'This is the only reason I come to school,' " Barton said.
Another offering that is no more: driver's education at all of the high schools. Until now, students could earn half a credit as they learned the rules of the road and practiced hands-on in cars.
Springstead already had six of the 12 sections of driver's ed filled last year and had to tell students to find something else for their schedules, Duval said. She acknowledged that the program makes the roads safer.
"I feel it's a shame we're losing a valuable course," she said.
At Hernando High, the driver's ed offerings had already started to shrink — down to just two periods a day — because principal Ken Pritz needed the instructor to teach more science courses.
"It's a definite benefit for parents to have (driver's ed) taught in schools. But when you're faced with cuts, something's got to give," Pritz said.
School officials are considering offering driver's education after school, at one location and for a fee.
Most parents would learn to accept that, Pritz said.
"I think you're going to see even more creative ways to try to educate kids without spending as much money, and part of that would be consolidating programs in one site," he said.
Activity, athletic fees on the horizon
As school officials cut, they're also looking for ways to bolster the revenue side. The board has given initial approval to Blavatt's recommendation, based on the work of a district committee, to charge activity fees and create a pay-to-play system for athletics.
Middle school students would pay $35 for their first sport and $20 for the second, with a cap of $55 for students who play additional sports. High school students would pay $45 for the first sport and $25 for the second, with a cap of $70.
There also would be family rates for siblings at the same school. Students whose families submit proof of financial hardship could pay the fee over the course of a year or through volunteer hours.
A $15 general activity fee would cover involvement in extracurricular activities such as clubs.
The move could raise an estimated $400,000.
The Eley family of Spring Hill is already feeling the effects of cuts and will feel more when the fees are put in place, said Lori Eley, a married mother of two Springstead students.
Daughter Alanna will be a senior next year. She has a passion for engineering, took construction technology last year, and probably would have taken it again this year, Lori said.
The family worries that the Web design program could be next. Alanna is working toward a certificate in that field.
Daughter Savanna will be a junior, and both she and Alanna would have taken driver's education. Now they might have to settle for online courses and lessons from Mom, Lori Eley said.
"You have to learn it somewhere," she said. "You can't just throw them out there and say, 'Go for it.' "
Both girls are varsity swimmers, which under the proposed plan would cost the family the $100 family rate. Eley's husband is disabled, she is his caretaker, and they live on a fixed income.
Eley said she understands that everyone has to sacrifice in tough times and parents need to step up. But parents are hurting, too, and need a certain level of support from the public school system to provide for their children, she said.
"They are our lives, they are our responsibility, and we're trying to give them the tools they need," she said.
Even Blavatt acknowledged that the trademark resiliency of school communities only goes so far.
"At what point," he said, "do you decrease the feed for the animal before you kill it?"
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.