TAMPA — First the sky is falling, and then everything is fine. Or is it?
Even as state legislators and Gov. Charlie Crist tell school districts that federal stimulus money will keep them out of the budgetary doldrums this fall, Hillsborough County school officials say they're continuing to plan for the worst.
But unlike other school districts across Florida, there are no teacher layoffs or school closings on the horizon here, and no further program cuts are expected.
But officials are still planning to slash every dollar of the $34.5 million in cuts announced for this fall. And the district isn't counting on the federal stimulus to keep on giving after it runs out in two years, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said.
"We are not going to fall off a cliff in two years, I can tell you that," she added.
On paper, the district is now facing a projected shortfall of $4 million to $19 million in state funding, compared to current levels. That's a lot better than the more than $100 million shortfall officials had been fearing before the impact of the federal stimulus was known, said chief business officer Gretchen Saunders.
But those numbers don't include projected increases in health and property insurance, fuel and utility costs.
"All of those numbers make it a larger (shortfall) than the $4 million or $19 million," Elia said. "All of those things are unknowns to us. In the big picture, we're going to have to be on a very tight budget for a very long time."
Starting this fall, those lean times will include a reduction in class time for students in the arts, music and elementary foreign language, from 45 to 30 minutes per week, according to the budget-cutting plan adopted last month.
Other cuts include a reduction in paid work days or staffing formulas for many support employees, including guidance counselors and media specialists; an end to the practice of re-hiring retired employees or extending participation in the state deferred retirement program; and two or three days of unpaid furlough for most teachers, staff and administrators.
But the district has no plans to take some of the more drastic cost-cutting measures that have been discussed in Tallahassee, such as sending children to school for extended hours on a four-day week.
"Absolutely not," Elia said. "I do not think that's an appropriate thing to do for children. It's terrible."
By this fall, the Hillsborough schools will have cut $85 million to $100 million over a three-year period from an annual operating budget of $1.7 billion. The district has reduced busing, altered the daily class schedule, and slashed administrative costs in an effort to plan for the worst, Elia said.
"In the bigger picture, the cuts that we've taken here have allowed us to keep moving without going into a crisis mode," she added.
Many other school districts have tried to do the same, said Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators.
"Prudent districts have already made that first, second, third round of cuts," he added. "I do know that Hillsborough was one of the districts that planned well for this (funding crisis.)"
But Warford said many school systems won't be able to continue reducing programs and staff for much longer.
"We are in this position because we have continued to underfund schools in this state," he said. "Very soon, unless we come to our senses, you won't even recognize the public schools in Florida."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.