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Few surprises in ideas for cutting Hernando County schools budget

SPRING HILL — Last month, superintendent Bryan Blavatt told Hernando County School Board members that there would be few surprises on his list of ideas to close a roughly $11 million gap in the district's 2011-12 budget.

He kept his word.

Reducing the number of paid holidays, suspending automatic salary increases, scaling back bus service and levying activity and athletic fees had all been mentioned in recent weeks, and they are all included among suggestions up for board discussion during a budget workshop at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

"One of the realities here is, if you do what you've always done, you're going to spend what you always have, and we can't," Blavatt said.

The district faces a $16.6 million shortfall in its estimated $158 million general fund. Principals are being asked to cut 10 percent from their school budgets, which will save nearly $5 million. The district also plans to reduce school discretionary budgets by a total of $246,000.

That leaves $11.4 million more to cut.

The ideas that would save the most money affect employees and will require negotiations with the two unions that represent teachers and noninstructional workers.

The largest chunk — $3.2 million — would come from reducing the number of paid holidays for all employees. Employees who work 197 days would lose five of their six paid holidays. Year-round workers would lose five of 10 holidays.

The district would save more than $2.4 million by suspending the automatic pay, or "step," increases built into the union contracts.

Another option is asking employees to bear the brunt of an anticipated increase in health insurance premiums. If the worst-case scenario of a 15 percent increase becomes reality, employees would have to cover the $1.4 million cost. But there are indications that the increase may be as small as one-third of that, said chief financial officer Desiree Henegar.

It's tough to fill a budget gap without affecting employees when about 87 percent of the district's general fund is related to personnel costs, Blavatt said. The goal is to slice the budget without significant layoffs.

"If we get the union to work with us, then we won't have to cut jobs," he said.

The list does suggest eliminating an unspecified number of positions in the facilities department for savings of $393,000. The reduction could be done through attrition, but also might require cutting current staffers, Blavatt said.

The board should be cautious when asking teachers to bear more of the burden, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

Teachers are already losing take-home pay now that state workers must contribute 3 percent to their pension funds, a result of action by the Florida Legislature this year, Vitalo said. The saving to the district is about $5.2 million (an updated figure from the $5.8 million Henegar gave to the board last month).

"We've already taken one cut to help close the gap," Vitalo said. "How much more money do you want to take out of the local economy? The average teacher is losing $1,200, and yet their step raise is not even close to that."

The board could also take about $1.4 million from the district's $4.9 million in general fund reserve dollars not already set aside for other obligations, but that would bring the reserve balance down to 2 percent of the district's estimated revenue. The state puts districts on a watch list when their reserve funds drop below 3 percent, Henegar said.

Students and families could feel the pinch, too.

The board has in recent years balked at eliminating so-called courtesy busing for students who live within 2 miles of their schools, citing safety concerns. The state does not reimburse the district for the expense.

The district currently provides courtesy busing to more than 2,400 students, Henegar said. Cutting the service would save $810,000.

The list of possible cuts also includes two ideas bound to make sports lovers gasp: eliminating middle school sports (saving roughly $197,000) and suspending junior varsity sports at the high school level (saving about $220,500).

But the board on Tuesday also will have another option to consider: Blavatt's recommendation, based on the work of a district committee, to charge activity fees and implement a pay-to-play system for athletics.

A $15 general activity fee would cover involvement in extracurricular activities such as clubs.

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.

The move could raise an estimated $400,000.

Blavatt also is proposing a reorganization of the district office that would result in relatively modest savings of about $30,000 this year and roughly $58,000 annually after that.

The plan eliminates the assistant superintendent and director of student services positions and creates a chief academic officer who would oversee a new division of teaching and learning.

The move would "flatten" the district office and make for a more efficient system to support schools in this new data-driven era.

"The real focus should be on school improvement," Blavatt said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Few surprises in ideas for cutting Hernando County schools budget 06/01/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 8:34pm]
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