Furloughs look likely for Pinellas school employees

More than 11,500 Pinellas school employees may get extra days off next year. At their expense.

The Pinellas County School Board reluctantly acknowledged the likelihood of furloughs Tuesday, given a $26 million budget hole that can't be filled with other proposed cuts.

"The question at this point is probably 'how many (furlough days)' instead of 'will we?' " said board vice chairwoman Carol Cook.

The possibility of furloughs has loomed for two months. But until a board workshop Tuesday, board members and Superintendent Julie Janssen had danced around the prospect of what they call "mandatory unpaid leave."

No more.

After identifying a long list of potential cuts, the district remains up to $8 million short of the $26 million bottom line, Janssen said. And time is running out: The district's first budget hearing is July 27.

"I really don't know where else to look," Janssen said. "We literally went into every single department."

Under one furlough model presented Tuesday, teachers would be forced to take two days of unpaid leave, while principals and assistant principals take three to eight days. That option would save $5.4 million.

Under the second, teachers would be furloughed three days; administrators, three to nine. Savings: $7.8 million.

Teachers union president Kim Black said the district hasn't made a formal proposal for furloughs. But if the board is headed in that direction, she said, "It stinks."

"I'm just offended that you just chip away, chip away, chip away, until there's nothing left of the employee," she said.

"These are very low-paid people," said Rick Brant, an organizer for the union that represents bus drivers, custodians and other blue-collar workers, who may lose one to three days in furloughs. "Losing a day's pay is devastating."

Both unions said the district could dip into its "cliff reserve," a $12 million fund it created to soften the blow when federal stimulus money runs out next year. But a majority of board members said Tuesday that it would be irresponsible to do so, knowing even bigger budget cuts (next year's shortfall is expected to be $54 million) are just around the bend.

"There's not going to be any replenishing" of money for education, said board chairwoman Janet Clark.

It's unclear how many furlough days may be coming, and when a final decision will be made.

After the budget discussion, the board went into executive session — off-limits to the public and media — to discuss what will be presented to the unions.

The district has discussed other possible cuts for weeks, including the potential shifting of more health insurance costs to employees.

On Tuesday, the district's finance team threw out another likely possibility — putting 250 newly hired teachers on provisional contracts, at less pay, for the first 88 days, for a savings of $2.5 million.

It also appears the district is moving to eliminate district-issued cell phones for most employees, saving $200,000.

The district has issued about 1,000 cell phones, according to a recent survey by the Florida Legislature. The district receives federal subsidies that eliminate much of the cost, and many employees need them to deal with emergencies, said assistant superintendent John Just.

But they're viewed as a perk and "make people angry," Just said. "Maybe we just have to respond to it on that level."

Board members told Janssen they still want to explore a couple of other possible cuts, including an early retirement option for teachers. The district estimates it could save $1.9 million to $2.3 million if 100 of 600 eligible teachers choose that option.

But even then, the budget hole will remain far from filled — leaving furloughs on the table.

"We wish we did not have to do this," board member Mary Brown said. "But unless we're going to lay people off, we have to do this."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Furloughs look likely for Pinellas school employees 07/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 12:44am]

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