BROOKSVILLE — It's a conversation officials in the Hernando County School District wish they didn't need to have.
But superintendent Bryan Blavatt — entering his first full budget planning cycle since taking the job last April — has already started a dialogue about staffing cuts in the face of a grim financial picture and the challenge of meeting class size caps for core subjects such as math and reading.
Blavatt is asking principals to consider what tough decisions they would make if forced to cut noncore teaching and noninstructional positions.
The message, as he described it to the Times last week: "In the next three or four months, I want you to pay attention to what you think you can afford to lose."
Core classes are math, reading, science, language arts, social studies and foreign languages. That puts at risk for elimination teaching positions for art, music and electives.
Examples of noninstructional positions are reading and math coaches, assessment teachers and guidance counselors.
"Next year, the staffing allocations are not going to be the same as this year, so we want (principals) to take a real critical look at those positions and recognize there's going to be a reduction," Blavatt said.
The goal is to give principals as much input as possible in the process and recognize that each school has different needs and that responsibilities often transcend job titles, he said.
"You can't make a carte blanche judgment on any particular category," he said. "You have to fixate not on the position, but on the function and what are they doing."
Blavatt's instruction comes as state officials project a budget shortfall of $3.6 billion. He was quick to note how early this is in the process for the 2011-12 budget, especially since education funding levels are a moving target. But planning for a 10 percent reduction in noncore positions is a good starting point, he said.
Blavatt has had informal conversations with some school administrators and is slated to meet with all the principals as a group Monday morning.
It's better to give direction early than to wait, he said. "The more you put people ahead of the game, the more they have a chance to respond."
Principals will be asked to consider possible cuts with one overarching consideration in mind, he said: "How is this helping meet our objective of providing the best instruction possible?"
The challenge is a symptom of the brutal irony created by a simple equation. Revenue is expected to decline next year, but the number of full-time teachers will almost certainly have to increase to meet the stricter statewide class-size mandates approved by voters in 2002.
The caps are now set at 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 students in grades 4-8 and 25 students in grades 9-12. School officials throughout the state hoped voters would approve a constitutional amendment last November to ease the caps, but that didn't happen.
The district met those requirements this year — avoiding potentially hefty fines — mainly by hiring more long-term substitutes and paying supplements for teachers to take on extra classes. The effort in Hernando so far has cost about half of the $4 million budgeted in the $174 million general fund.
Though the effort is ongoing, many of those dollars will likely carry over to the next budget year, which begins July 1, said Heather Martin, executive director of business services.
Cutting positions does not mean there will be layoffs. School Board members have said in the last couple of tough budget years that their goal is to keep as many people employed as possible. The hope is that downsizing can be achieved mostly through attrition, Martin said.
The School Board typically considers a staffing plan in March. The earlier a plan is approved, the more likely teachers know before they leave for the summer whether they will continue to have a job, Martin said. And staffers in noncore and noninstructional positions can start working now toward certifications in core subjects so they can shift into open teaching positions.
Martin noted there will be more shuffling than usual this year because the elementary portion of the new K-8 school north of Weeki Wachee is set to open in the fall.
Westside Elementary could lose an estimated 180 students and several staffers to the yet-unnamed school. Beyond that uncertainty, principal Westside Nancy Kesselring expects a tough year ahead as she tries to decide what positions might need to go.
"The bottom line is we have to do what's best for children," Kesselring said.
But just what is best?
Music, art and physical education are critical for a well-rounded student, Kesselring said, while assessment teachers and reading and math coaches help identify and support students who are falling behind.
"It's not going to be easy," she said.
Giving principals a say makes sense, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. But some parameters should be set in the process to ensure a level of consistency throughout the district, Vitalo said.
"I'm really concerned about expanding the have and have-not gaps," he said. "We have to make sure the resources that get to our kids are as equal as possible."
Central High principal Joe Clifford fears that losing positions could mean slipping again after making progress in the last year. The school shot from a D to a B last year in the state accountability system based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores. Clifford this year has used about $700,000 in grant funding for low-performing schools, mainly to add staff to focus more attention on struggling students.
"Right now, I'm okay," Clifford said. "Tell me you're going to cut me more, I have a problem."
Clearly frustrated by the prospect of losing positions, Clifford said there is plenty of blame to go around. State lawmakers continue to underfund education. The School Board refused to levy a quarter-mill increase in the property tax the last two years. And the electorate refused in a referendum last November to give the board the power to increase the school tax rate by the same amount in the next two budget years.
"We've had an eight-cylinder car running on four cylinders for the 30 years I've been in this district," Clifford said. "It's time to stand up and say our children deserve better."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.