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Hernando County schools brace for deeper budget cuts

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando school superintendent Bryan Blavatt has a colorful way of describing the philosophy needed to tackle what could be the toughest budget year in recent history — and improve student performance at the same time.

"Every one of our people in the school district ought to have five letters tattooed to them," Blavatt said. "B-A-U-I-O. Business as usual is over. What do we need to do to get better, and how are we going to do this with less money?"

There could be a lot less money.

Even if revenues stayed the same as the current budget year, with a general fund of $171 million, the district would have to cut as much as $7.6 million to balance the budget in 2011-12, said Desiree Henegar, the district's chief financial officer.

Now Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a budget that would reduce per-student funding from the state by nearly 10 percent. For Hernando — already 63rd out of 67 counties in per-student funding — that would mean a $13.4 million hit.

The math is brutal in its simplicity, a possible $21 million blow.

Typically, a governor's proposed budget offers pie-in-the-sky plans for education funding that are tempered once lawmakers set to work on their own budgets.

"This time we're hoping it's just the opposite, because (Scott's budget) is devastating to education funding," Henegar said.

Scott is optimistic in one sense, though.

"His budget shows our property values increasing by nearly 5 percent, and we know that's probably not going to happen, so I'd say that $13.4 million is probably understated," Henegar said.

Plummeting property values have already shrunk the school district's local property tax revenue source. And the $14 million in federal stimulus dollars that helped in the last two years to plug holes in the budget is gone.

Meanwhile, the district must decide how many more permanent teachers to hire to meet class-size caps in core subjects such as reading and math. This year, long-term substitutes and teachers taking on extra class periods made that happen.

There are other big-ticket expenses to consider.

Winding Waters K-8 School, set to open its elementary section next fall, will come with an estimated $2.3 million price tag for new positions, even with the assumption that a majority of the jobs at the school north of Weeki Wachee will be filled with existing employees who move from other schools, Henegar said.

Annual costs, like health insurance, tend to rise each year. And continuing unrest around the world doesn't bode well for fuel prices.

To be sure, it's early in a budget process that will evolve when the Legislature convenes.

But lawmakers are talking cuts, too, and the district must prepare now to debate every option, Blavatt said. That means things that principals, teachers and parents hold dear.

Roughly 86 percent of the general fund is spent on personnel costs.

"So if you're going to have significant cuts, it's heartbreaking, but it's going to have be in that area," Henegar said.

Blavatt recently gave principals a directive: Look at noncore and noninstructional positions such as math and reading coaches, guidance counselors and assessment teachers, and decide what you can afford to lose. Shoot for a 10 percent reduction.

Principals are now reviewing their staff allocations with that goal in mind, Blavatt said.

"They're doing research at the school level to see what makes the most sense for them, and that's what I wanted them to do," he said.

The hope is that many staffers targeted for cuts can shift to core-subject teaching positions to help meet class-size caps.

Last year, the district asked the teachers union to consider forgoing automatic pay raises, known as step increases, built into its contract. The union said no.

This year could require some serious soul-searching on the part of union officials, Blavatt said.

"It comes down to a real question of job security vs. raises," he said.

It's too early in the budget process to seriously consider that, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

With Scott's proposal, "hopefully we know where the bottom is at," and the final budget will be less painful, Vitalo said.

Scott's budget assumes that school employees will be contributing 5 percent to their pensions, a hit to their take-home pay and spending power and, in turn, the local economy, Vitalo noted.

But if cuts are deep enough, he acknowledged, "everything has to be on the table," including step increases.

School Board members, though, "have to realize one group is not going to save them," Vitalo said. "It's going to take a combination of a lot of things to handle the cuts in education.

Parents will likely feel the impact, too.

A committee is expected to bring a recommendation to the School Board in the coming months for some kind of fee to help cover the costs of extracurricular activities, such as middle school athletics.

At a workshop earlier this month, transportation director Linda Smith brought some good financial news to the board. This year's change in school start times will save roughly $1 million in busing costs — about 25 percent more than Smith had projected.

But at the end of her presentation, Smith noted that the next logical place to look for big savings in her department is so-called courtesy busing, or transporting students who live within 2 miles of school. The district is not reimbursed by the state for those costs, which run about $1.2 million a year.

The School Board in the past has balked at cutting that service, citing safety concerns. But the harshest of financial realities could change that.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or

Hernando County schools brace for deeper budget cuts 02/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 11:18am]
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