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Hernando School Board finds no easy answers to closing budget gap

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando School Board tried Tuesday to claw its way toward closing a roughly $1.4 million budget gap.

Faced with no easy options on a list of ideas presented by superintendent Bryan Blavatt, they made little progress.

"I guess we know where we stand on how unnerving this entire situation is," Chairman James Yant said at the end of the two-hour discussion.

The four-member board, which is still waiting for Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a replacement for Pat Fagan, could wipe out the shortfall in one swoop by dipping into the district's estimated $4.2 million unrestricted reserves. But Yant and board member Cynthia Moore balked.

That would drop the reserves down to 2 percent of the total general fund of $159 million, the minimum required by the state. More concerning, though, would be the lack of a substantial rainy day fund to deal with a catastrophic hurricane or a successful outcome for Cemex, which is currently suing the county to get as much as $3 million in back taxes, board members said.

"That would put us in major jeopardy there," Yant said.

Blavatt voiced his own concerns about that strategy.

"We don't have one payroll in reserve, and that's a scary way to operate anything," he said.

Later, though, Blavatt acknowledged that the time may have arrived to use the reserves to stave off cuts to programs, then replace the money when — or if — the financial picture brightens.

"You're in triage now," he said.

Only one board member, Dianne Bonfield, offered an opinion on cutting an additional 10 magnet and theme positions at the six schools that offer special programs. That would wipe out all 15 of those schools' allocations because five have already been cut as principals looked for ways to meet Blavatt's directive to cut 10 percent of their staffing allocations.

The move would save $590,000, and Bonfield said it should be seriously considered.

"I don't think we can afford anything extra at this time," she said.

That could effectively kill some programs, though, Blavatt warned.

"I don't know that you'd have the uniqueness any longer of a magnet," Blavatt said.

Polled by the St. Petersburg Times afterward, Yant said those cuts should be a last resort, Moore said she was undecided, and member John Sweeney said he doubted it could be done for the upcoming school year given that the district already has committed to families who were accepted into the programs.

"Eliminating the magnet positions would effectively eliminate the magnet schools," Sweeney said. "It would cause complete turmoil."

The board did agree to scrounge for some smaller savings, including a move that could be tough for the beleaguered teachers and staff to swallow: banning from classrooms personal appliances such as fans, microwaves, mini-refrigerators and radios. It could save as much as $56,000 districtwide, maintenance director Sean Arnold told the board.

"Some schools have 60 to 80 miniature refrigerators," Arnold said. "I know it's an inconvenience, but there are teacher lounges in every school and that's where you would have to go to get your beverage."

The board also firmed up decisions made in the last workshop to help reduce what at that point was a roughly $11 million budget gap, including a fee system for participation in athletics and extracurricular activities, and the elimination of so-called courtesy bus service for students who live within 2 miles of school and activity.

Though she ultimately agreed with the move, Bonfield said she wasn't comfortable with a wholesale elimination of the service. "Some schools have major issues with no sidewalks, no lighting, lime rock roads, dangerous highways," she said. "That's money well spent."

The board will formally vote on that measure at a special meeting on June 30, the last scheduled meeting before chief financial officer Desiree Henegar is slated to present a tentative balanced budget at the first public hearing on July 26.

Hanging over the workshop was the specter of cuts to personnel. The district, facing a $7 million shortfall, is terminating the contracts of 116 first-year teachers, 47 bus drivers and attendants. Total savings: $4.6 million.

Blavatt said the district had to go that route after the first round of talks with both unions failed to result in an agreement on forgoing five paid holidays and automatic experience-based raises. The district faced a deadline to notify employees if they still have a job or not, Blavatt told the board.

If job cuts wind up to be necessary after all, at least some employees will likely be able to move into positions left vacant by resignations and retirements, said Heather Martin, executive director of business services. Others could become long-term substitutes.

Talks with the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association and the Hernando United School Workers resume Thursday. Board members expressed hope that talks will go well.

"The last thing the district and the board wants to do is eliminate positions," Sweeney said. "A little bit of cooperation on everybody's part and we can get this done."

The teachers union needed clarity on the numbers and confirmation that the board would consider every option to spread out the pain, HCTA president Joe Vitalo said after the meeting.

"Now that everybody understands the whole picture, we will get it done," Vitalo said.

School administrators and district-office workers are slated to lose five of 10 paid holidays for a savings of $321,000.

The board and Blavatt also reiterated their intention to make sacrifices. Board members will give up five paid days for a total savings of $4,254. Blavatt will do the same, saving $3,392.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando School Board finds no easy answers to closing budget gap 06/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 9:48pm]

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