BROOKSVILLE — A month ago, it was like pulling teeth for the Hernando County School Board to find $16 million in tentative budget cuts.
On Monday, like it or not, those teeth are coming out.
Board members are expected to vote on a district staffing plan that would eliminate 129 classroom teaching positions to stem a state funding shortfall. The district would adjust to those cuts in its $159 million operating budget by raising average class sizes by two or three students at every grade level.
The plan would also eliminate more than 70 classroom support positions, including nearly half the district's 21 assessment teachers, 20 reading teachers and coaches, and 14 magnet school teaching positions. Driver's education would be eliminated, and nearly a dozen central office and custodial staffers would be trimmed from the payroll.
While board members can reverse themselves later this spring on individual items, Monday's vote will set the 2009-10 budget-building process in motion and guide decisions on which jobs won't get filled next fall.
"It locks it in," said business services director Heather Martin. "(Board members) have to make a decision on staffing. Prior to the end of the school year, teachers must be notified whether they're going to be reappointed or not."
Superintendent Wayne Alexander says protecting classroom instruction is "sacred" and his top priority.
But principals say it's clear some of his proposed cuts, like the elimination of 10 assessment teachers, will affect teachers and classrooms.
Assessment specialists help teachers focus their efforts, analyzing test scores and other data to determine which students need extra help or alternative strategies to pass the high-stakes Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Right now, every school in the district has one. But the cuts would force them to split their time between more than one building.
"The assessment teachers are critical as far as we're concerned," lead elementary principal Joe Clifford told the board last month.
Just two out of five board members, Sandra Nicholson and Dianne Bonfield, supported that cut. A third, John Sweeney, said he favored cutting assessment teachers only if the district were forced to eliminate $25 million — rather than $16 million — from its budget.
But Alexander said the district may well need to cut the larger amount by next fall.
Officials weren't quite so alarmed at the prospect of cutting half the district's 20 reading coaches, who support teachers' state-mandated intensive reading programs.
"If we had the right 10 coaches in place, we could serve all 20 schools," said district reading specialist Deborah Pfenning.
Magnet school principals, who would lose 14 teaching positions, are already bracing for the loss of some of the programs that make their programs unique.
"I don't know what it's going to do to our electives," said Sue Stoops, principal at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, referring to her magnet program's extra science and math classes.
And not all of the extra positions at Challenger were frills. One teaching position in jeopardy focused on remediation for struggling reading students, she said.
Other potential cuts could leave employees struggling to keep up with mountains of work, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.
For example, he said, high schools will each lose a media specialist, leaving librarians alone in crowded rooms without so much as an aide.
District officials have held out hope that all staff reductions could be handled through the normal attrition of retirements and resignations.
But it's an uncertain hope until the true scope of state funding cuts is known, Vitalo said.
"Nowhere out there are we even talking about pay raises for us," he added. "We're talking about saving services and saving jobs."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.