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Fewer Pinellas students but school payrolls grow

Nine straight years of declining student enrollment is forcing Pinellas County school district officials to take a hard look at whether schools have too many teachers and other staff.

A count of students on the 10th day of school on Sept. 2 showed 101,921 attending classes — an 11 percent loss of more than 12,000 students since 2003.

Over that same period, instructional staffing has increased 4 percent from about 7,793 positions to about 8,265, say district figures. Top administrators say that's not all due to class size laws, which began mandating smaller student-teacher ratios beginning in 2003.

"As we look at the number of instructional units now . . . we're not sure it truly reflects a one-to-one relationship with what it needs to be, even with class size being factored in," deputy superintendent Jim Madden said Thursday.

Armed with the latest enrollment figures, the district's department heads this week began reviewing whether classes should be combined or teachers moved around from less popular classes or schools to those with more need.

So far, no one is saying the word "layoffs."

"We don't want to have anyone panic, thinking they're going to lose their positions," said Ron Ciranna, assistant superintendent of human resources.

Part of the problem appears to have been the district's habit of absorbing positions created by grant funding even after the money ran out, Ciranna said.

It's time, he said, for a more conservative approach: "I think, before, when the district had a lot of money, we weren't paying attention where we should. The district has to have procedures in place where you hold the (schools) accountable for staffing needs."

Deputy superintendent Madden declined to say specifically whether the drop in student enrollment could lead to cuts in programs. But he acknowledged that the district "can't offer everything that we offered in the past. . . . I would say nothing is out of the realm of possibility at this time."

Pinellas began losing students years before any of the surrounding counties started to do the same — and the loss has been far more profound.

In the same decade Pinellas has lost students, other Tampa Bay school districts have shown a net growth: 5.6 percent in Hillsborough, 7.9 percent in Pasco and 13.7 percent in Hernando. Statewide, enrollment has grown 2.2 percent in that time to what is projected to be about 2.65 million this school year.

Pinellas' loss of school-age children also has outpaced the general population decline. Census figures show that from 2001 to 2010 the county's population declined less than 1 percent. During those same years, the district experienced a 9 percent drop in its student population.

Marshall Touchton, the district's demographic specialist, noted that young families fled Pinellas during the housing bubble as home prices rose and it became easier to find affordable homes in neighboring counties.

Now, it's once again possible for families to find once-out-of-reach homes for less money or less rent, Touchton said. But the crummy state of the economy is still taking its toll.

"It's cheap to live here again," he said, "but we don't have a whole lot of jobs drawing people in."

Dee Burns, director of student assignment, also pays close attention to the attendance trends because of their potential impact on programs, staffing and student assignment.

Burns' office is busy identifying places where there have been spikes in student numbers.

"We're seeing kids appear in neighborhoods where we wouldn't be expecting them," Burns said. Palm Harbor schools, for example, are experiencing a boom as once unaffordable homes have become more within reach for families looking to rent, she said.

How much longer Pinellas will continue to sustain its loss in students is not clear. Touchton and Burns said they expect the trend to flatten, and little bursts of enrollment offer some hope.

Three hundred more kindergartners enrolled this year compared with last, for example. Yet birth data don't suggest that will continue, Touchton said.

The district, which had more than 114,000 students in 2003, could dip below 100,000 before the trend stops — a change that could have more of a psychological effect than anything else.

Still, everyone staring at these numbers is aware that when students go away, so does funding. And when funding disappears, so can programs, jobs and the district's flexibility to respond to state mandates.

"It's not easy," Burns said. "Believe me, I was in this district when we were in a growth area, it was much easier.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Fewer Pinellas students but school payrolls grow 09/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 9, 2011 1:30am]

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