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For Pasco County Schools, another round of budget tightening

LAND O'LAKES — Remember when the Pasco School Board said it had all its budget cuts handled without pinching programs or classes that touch students?

That day came just a month ago, and it's ancient history.

The latest financial news out of Tallahassee has sent school district officials back to their ledger sheets in search of millions more to slash — specifically, about $9.2 million more before June 30 and another $35 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Florida might get some federal stimulus funds to cushion the blow, but its share for education is in jeopardy under the rules set forth in the package.

Already, the School Board has reduced its general operating budget by close to $32 million from its peak two years ago.

"Everything is back on the table again," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said Friday, after conferring with her leadership team.

That includes spring sports, field trips and all the other things thought safe when lawmakers ended their January special session by wielding a softer budget axe to education than initially expected. Now even the district's best laid plans are all akimbo.

"We've been cutting for two solid years," Fiorentino said. "We are just limping along as a school system."

She figured some of the $9.2 million reduction could come through accounting flexibility the Legislature authorized during its January session. Pasco can use about $6 million in capital projects money to pay for property insurance, something previously covered by general funds.

But the remainder still needs a source, which the administration has yet to find. And as for the $35 million, officials have a laundry list of ideas that they acknowledge will choke off the district's attempts to keep cuts from hurting the classroom.

"Next year is when everyone is going to feel it," Fiorentino said.

Because many of the possibilities (such as taking a paid holiday from employees) require a negotiated agreement, Fiorentino and the United School Employees of Pasco have put together a committee to advise the administration on budget matters. The invitations for the 18-member committee went out Friday.

It's scheduled to meet Thursday.

At the same time, Fiorentino has staff preparing a survey to gauge the views of all employees on possible moves, and she's looking into ways to collect input from parents and others in the community. She also is considering asking the School Board to put a local property tax increase referendum on the ballot.

That would allow voters to decide if they want to put more of their money into the school system if the state does not bring in more revenue. Several districts, including Pinellas and Sarasota, have taken such steps to support such things as teacher pay.

"When we look at that, we also have to say, 'Can you get blood out of a turnip?' " Fiorentino said.

Probably not, board chairman Frank Parker guessed.

"I think that would be a very difficult sell, even though you could more than justify it," he said.

For their part, School Board members said they intend to jump-start the 2009-10 budget process with discussions about spending priorities — perhaps as early as their meeting on Tuesday.

Layoffs, furloughs and other things the board has been loathe to discuss are likely to come up, Parker said. "We don't have a choice."

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.

Fast facts

Who's who

The Pasco school district and employees union have appointed a committee to give budget advice. Here are the members:

Gary Allen, teacher/coach, River Ridge High School

Elizabeth Schaefermeyer, sign language interpreter, Land O'Lakes High School

Robert Moore, staff, USEP

Frank Roder, staff, USEP

Sharon Pelchat, teacher, Richey Elementary School

Glennda McCallister, teacher on assignment, ESE

Sue Beane, teacher, Cypress Elementary School

Lesley Wade, teacher, Wiregrass Ranch High School

Darlene Hamm, nutrition services manager, Fox Hollow Elementary School

Jennifer Yerke, teacher, Wesley Chapel Elementary

Grant Young, teacher, Pasco High School

Edna Copeland, bus driver, Transportation

Ray Bonti, principal, Wiregrass Ranch High School

Mark Fox, crew chief, Maintenance Department

John Keon, teacher, Hudson Middle School

Cathi Jarvi, teacher, Centennial Middle School

Chris Altenes, curriculum & instruction

Helena Fletcher, Cypress Elementary Schools

For Pasco County Schools, another round of budget tightening 02/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2009 10:42pm]

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