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Fate of Pasco dropout schools in play amid budget cuts

LAND O'LAKES — As Pasco school officials talk budget cuts, rumors continue to crop up that some program or another stands to be slashed or canceled.

Popular topics of speculation — all of which have appeared on a list — have included athletics, busing and, most recently, alternative education.

Speculation has surfaced that the district plans to change or perhaps close the Schwettman Education Center in New Port Richey and the Irvin Education Center in Dade City. The two dropout prevention schools serve about 350 students in the sixth through 12th grades.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said Tuesday that she has no immediate plans to shut the centers. But she refused to rule out the possibility, saying that every option to save money remains in play and that her staff will meet Friday to start discussing the fate of the alternative programs and other "graduation enhancement" initiatives.

"Right now, we're analyzing data," said Ramon Suarez, who oversees the district's graduation enhancement effort. "We're looking for program effectiveness. We're looking into different kinds of ideas."

It might be, for instance, that the cost of busing students to education centers at the ends of the county is not cost efficient and that individual schools might be able to serve the students for less while still getting the same or better academic results. The current education systems that the centers and schools provide to at-risk students also might not be the most successful ones available and could be replaced, Suarez said.

"We want to see how can we improve services to the students," he said.

School Board member Joanne Hurley, who recently toured Schwettman, said the timing is right to investigate alternatives to the current way of educating students who don't perform well in a mainstream school, "given the fact that we have to look at cutting expenses."

She did not want to make any early comments on whether it might make sense to shut down the centers until she knows what other options, if any, exist.

Board member Kathryn Starkey said she was not aware of any talk to close the education centers. She has, however, spoken at board meetings about the need to change the way the district runs its alternative programs.

She reiterated that need Tuesday, saying different hours and a longer calendar to meet the students' requirements and keep them coming back might be required.

Other budget issues remain in play, including changes to afterschool programs, student transportation, textbook purchasing and rental of school facilities. The district's budget advisory committee is set to talk about spending today. Fiorentino said she does not expect to have solid recommendations until after the Legislature finishes its budget negotiations.

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.

Fate of Pasco dropout schools in play amid budget cuts 04/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 10:16pm]
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