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Hernando County schools wait for word on budget money

It's been a rough few weeks for the Hernando County schools.

Earlier this month, about 200 teacher and staff jobs were on the fast track for elimination as a part of the budget reduction process.

Teachers began to rally against superintendent Wayne Alexander's cost-cutting measures, and then word got out that he was a finalist for a job in Massachusetts.

By last Tuesday, his job was on the line. Hundreds of teachers dressed in black rallied outside the School Board offices, and two School Board members called for his dismissal over the continuation of his New England job hunting.

Then on Wednesday, all was quiet.

With a single School Board vote to restore faculty and staff jobs that had been slashed, the Hernando County schools were back near the beginning. What had been a $12.8 million down payment toward a possible $25 million shortfall was gone.

School Board Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield said she was concerned about a teachers union claim that the district had shown "favoritism" in choosing teachers for nonrenewal. And she said she couldn't stomach the idea of raising class sizes at already crowded schools like Explorer K-8, where some classes number 36 or more students.

"That is not the way your Hernando County board wants to educate children," she said Tuesday.

Now, with those cost-cutting plans off the table — in part because the district believes that state funding reductions will not be as drastic as originally thought — the district is waiting for the Legislature to settle its budget. Until the district knows what the funding will be, there will be no further action on cutting the budget, Alexander said late last week.

Until the rest of the funding picture is known, he said, the district will focus on building its budget based on the facts.

County tax revenues are predicted to be 6 to 10 percent lower. Student numbers are down by more than 500. And there is a good possibility the state will engage in additional cuts throughout the next school year, Alexander added.

The district can expect $5.1 million in federal stimulus money, earmarked for the Title I and Exceptional Student Education programs. The district plans to create 50 new positions with that money, and use them to help keep some of the nonreappointed teachers employed.

Most of previously nonreappointed teachers and staff will still have jobs this fall, though some personnel details remain to be worked out, officials said.

The Hernando Classroom Teachers Association is adamant that highly rated teachers who were nonrenewed be given an opportunity to prove their worth, said president Joe Vitalo.

The union and district negotiators will be meeting early this week to discuss the process by which nontenured teachers are nonreappointed.

"This is new territory," Vitalo said. "Hopefully both sides are going in with an open mind. We don't want to lose the best and the brightest because of a personality conflict."

Vitalo hopes that the culture of not giving up on children translates to also not giving up on teachers. He believes the teacher evaluation process can work.

"We have a system to give them a hard shake," he said. It has helped others decide to move on.

But the ultimate decisions for reappointments lie with the district.

"Statute doesn't allow the union to determine who is and who isn't nonreappointed," Alexander said.

"The supply and demand has changed," he added. "You can be a little more particular with where the high water mark is."

Hernando County schools wait for word on budget money 04/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2009 11:57am]

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