No raises. Larger class sizes. Job vacancies frozen. More than anything, 2008 was the year of budget cuts for Pasco County schools.
Dwindling tax revenue forced the state to slash school districts' funding by millions of dollars in both fiscal years that contained 2008. The School Board and superintendent Heather Fiorentino tried to find ways to prevent layoffs and avoid hurting classroom instruction.
But that meant some decisions that infuriated many employees, including the cancellation of contracted pay increases based on years of service. The United School Employees of Pasco protested — both across the negotiating table and out on U.S. 41 with signs — what it considered poor treatment of the district's most valuable asset, its faculty and staff.
Despite these differences, union leaders in the end acknowledged the budget reality and agreed to a contract with no raises and no step increases. Ratification votes by the employees and the board are expected in January. More cuts — and possible layoffs — still remain possible if the financial situation worsens, as many expect.
The union's anger at the administration's budget posture loomed large in Fiorentino's bid for re-election.
While the superintendent campaigned on the district's successes over the past four years, such as its improved graduation rate and its A rating from the state, the union blistered her record as a manager and actively supported her untested opponent, Gulf High School teacher Steve Donaldson.
Fiorentino bested Donaldson by 6 percentage points, but relations with the employees' bargaining unit had soured to the point where even she acknowledged the need to mend fences quickly. The meetings already have begun, as evidenced by the surprise contract settlement.
The 2008 election did more than put Fiorentino back in the superintendent's office.
It also marked the end of Marge Whaley's 16-year tenure on the School Board. Whaley chose to retire so she could spend more time with her newest granddaughter and her husband.
On her way out, Whaley endorsed Joanne Hurley for the District 2 seat. Hurley won the post in a three-way primary, and vowed to follow in Whaley's footsteps by visiting schools, listening and responding to anyone who communicates with her, and holding the district administration to account for its leadership.
Career academies take off
One of the key changes that the administration and board committed to during 2008 was the expansion of career academies, aimed at helping high school students get training for high-wage, high-skill jobs they could hold after graduation.
A technology academy at Wiregrass Ranch High paved the way, with its students passing their industry certification exams at a rate well beyond the national average. Educators at each of the county's dozen high schools began planning a variety of programs, ranging from construction to agribusiness.
Board member Kathryn Starkey became so enthused with the concept that she helped pull together an apprenticeship initiative for the fledgling engineering academy at River Ridge High. She even traveled to Germany at her own expense to learn more about apprenticeships, after which she persuaded state education leaders to work with her to incorporate the idea across Florida.
The district also worked to improve two elementary schools — Cox and Hudson — that consistently failed to meet federal progress standards. The schools spent a year preparing for added educator training, new curriculum programs and increased parent involvement.
They gave teachers who did not want to participate in the more highly scrutinized system the chance to leave. Each saw turnover of more than a third before the start of the 2008-09 year. They're now implementing the plans in hopes of attaining the federal benchmarks with next year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Pasco schools still growing
Pasco schools continued to grow during 2008, despite a statewide trend in the other direction.
Even as Florida lost more than 20,000 students, Pasco's student population jumped by 300 — not as many as projected, but a gain all the same.
That steady growth has translated into things such as the county's largest graduating class ever — Land O'Lakes High, with 591 commencing seniors — and ongoing crowding at schools such as Oakstead Elementary, which has more than 20 portables just three years after opening.
One of the biggest draws this year, though, was the new Imagine charter school in Land O'Lakes, which accounted for almost all of the district's enrollment increase. Charter schools have indicated they expect to keep expanding, with at least one submitting a request to double in size during 2009.
More traditional school construction is planned, as well.
Other stories of note
Some smaller stories also grabbed your attention during the year. Among them:
• The dismissal of substitute teacher Jim Piculas, whose allegation he was let go for "wizardry" made its way to Comedy Central's Colbert Report to the amusement of some and the embarrassment of others.
• The abrupt transfer of Gulf High principal Tom Imerson — and the domino effect it caused among other school administrators — caused consternation at several campuses that wanted strong, stable leadership.
• School Board member Cathi Martin's frequent absences from board meetings led to a proposal in Tallahassee to allow voters to recall board members. The idea didn't gain traction, but is expected to resurface.
• Gulf Middle resource officer John Nohejl was suspended after his student-oriented MySpace page was linked to friends' sites that linked to porn. He was cleared. In the aftermath, though, alert Web users discovered that Gulf Middle's Web site had direct links to porn, as well. The district shut down its Internet service for a day to check every link on every page.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.