WESLEY CHAPEL — Melissa Bidgood knew she wanted to take her third-grade class to Lowry Park Zoo as part of her animal habitat science theme.
With two field trips already under their belt, though, the Sand Pine Elementary School teacher also knew that getting the school or parents to cough up the $800 cost was unlikely, especially in today's budget cutting climate. Rather than bag the idea, though, Bidgood sought a third avenue for the funds — a grant from Target's field trip fund.
She won the award, and her students will take their trip on March 24. Now Bidgood is sold on looking for outside assistance to accomplish things that the public schools increasingly cannot afford.
"It was my first grant," said Bidgood, a fifth-year teacher. "I was excited."
Outside sources help many Pasco schools make ends meet as they try not to hurt instruction while millions in spending are slashed.
Booster clubs and parent groups have helped fill the gaps in Wiregrass Ranch High School's budget. Community organizations and local businesses have donated supplies to Schwettman Educational Center.
"Just the other day New Image Dermatology donated 10 flat-screen monitors," Schwettman principal Mimi Foster said. "People want to help."
At the same time, schools aim to hold the line anywhere possible.
Wiregrass Ranch custodians won't replace trash bags until they're completely full, for instance. Teachers assign work on blogs rather than hand out papers.
Schwettman cut its water and electric bills by 50 percent with an aggressive effort to flip light switches and tighten faucets. Calusa Elementary School limited the number of copies each teacher can make monthly. Bayonet Point Middle School audits its supplies before allowing the purchase of anything new.
"We're doing the normal cost-saving things you do," Bayonet Point principal Mike Asbell said. "We're being frugal and cautious."
The goal all along has been to keep the pain from classrooms and students. In many ways, principals agreed, the effort has succeeded.
But that's not to say the budget woes have not taken a toll.
Sunlake High, for example, had to disrupt hundreds of students' schedules mid-year after a reading teacher left the school and the district would not fill the position because of its hiring freeze. The school also has done without needed calculators in some math classes.
"I think that we're (also) seeing it in things like morale and attitude in some places," Sunlake principal Angie Stone said.
Some teachers struggle with their lack of raises, she noted. Many students have dealt with home foreclosures, new jobs to help their parents pay bills and more.
"A lot of that is eating away at school as a happy place where kids can go to escape all this," Stone said.
Things don't appear to be getting better.
Florida lawmakers now are talking about the state budget falling another $300 million short this fiscal year, and then $5 billion more next fiscal year. That news has education leaders on edge.
"Every time they talk about things I hold my breath and think, 'What are they going to cut?' " said Northwest Elementary principal Tracy Graziaplene.
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.