TRINITY — Nearly 500 parents, students and employees packed the Seven Springs Middle School cafeteria Wednesday night to offer budget-cutting ideas without slashing prized programs.
The turnout was five to 10 times greater than district officials saw at last year's budget town hall meetings, underscoring the painful cuts expected to address Pasco schools' $60 million shortfall.
Mitchell High School senior Destinee Gardiner spoke for the many arts-education supporters who came to urge the board not to gut art, music, drama and related programs.
"It's a mistake to even think about cutting the arts," Gardiner said, reeling off statistics about how well students in the arts perform academically, while audience members waved "We (Heart) Arts" signs. "I look around at these people wearing band shirts and I see family. Without band I would not have met them. … I'm 17. I'm talking to a bunch of adults who probably think they know better than I do. I probably couldn't have done this without drama."
Mitchell parent Jeff Fontaine said the public understands the need to cut. People are doing so with their own family budgets, as well.
"On the flip side, what can we do?" he asked. "What does the district have to sell? … What do we have to rent? Maybe we should contract some cell phone tower companies. … I don't like it, but maybe advertising on school buses."
Every little effort to raise revenue could help offset losses, Fontaine suggested.
For close to two hours, people came to the microphone to ask questions of district staffers and board member Cynthia Armstrong, while superintendent Heather Fiorentino stood off to the side, scribbling on pink note cards.
The officials often had to answer that state law currently doesn't permit them to do some of the things the audience members proposed, such as school bus advertising or required fees for program participation.
They also tried to assure the crowd that some of their biggest fears, such as the total elimination of arts programs, were unlikely to come to pass.
But they did not try to sugarcoat the rough times ahead.
"The school district has worked hard to keep past budget cuts from affecting the classroom," Armstrong told the group. "That continues to be our goal. But I can tell you that's not going to happen next year."
The district faces a budget shortfall of as much as $60 million for 2011-12, she and other leaders explained. With more than 80 percent of the general operating revenue going into salaries and benefits, she said, that leaves little room for cutting around the edges.
People and programs are likely to feel the pinch.
Before making cuts, she said, the board wants to hear the priorities from the public: "We want to make the best decisions in the coming months. We want to make them with your help."
Many people recommended charging more fees to students, an idea that runs against the requirement that districts provide a free and appropriate public education. Several wanted to see schools take more advantage of recycling programs to generate money.
Others proposed moving away from print textbooks to digital content, a move that Florida lawmakers are contemplating for implementation over five years. And still others pushed for privatizing some services if efficiencies can be realized.
Some teachers came forth with detailed operational ideas, such as streamlining the minutes of art, music and P.E. offered at elementary schools and reducing the number of days that assistant principals work in the summer.
Lisa O'Keefe, a Gulfside Elementary teacher, said perhaps schools could do with fewer planning days during the first week of the school year.
"I don't need five," O'Keefe said, adding that she'd rather have two unpaid non-working days "than cut programs and cut jobs."
The district has estimated that one furlough day could save $2.1 million.
Parent Lisa Whitehead, who has four children in the district, raised her voice in frustration at the series of bad choices that seem to be available to school boards.
"How much do we have to cut until we cut quality?" she said. "Our teachers work so hard without a raise for so many years. How many of them are we going to lose because of these cuts and cuts and cuts?"
Armstrong encouraged the audience to contact state lawmakers, who are still hashing out budget details, and pressure them to put more money into education rather than cutting funding by 7 percent. She also pressed the crowd to swamp the Pasco County Commission with opposition to a plan to cut school impact fees, which could indirectly eat away at the operating budget if the district does not have enough money to pay its bond debts from past construction.
As the event wound down, people said they appreciated having detailed information about the budget, as well as the opportunity to participate in the process.
"This forum does a number of things," Fontaine said. "It brings more ideas to the table for the decisionmakers. And too, much like voting, those of us who are stakeholders have a chance to say our piece."
Added Mitchell High senior Michelle Procida, who sat listening to the end, "It's nice to hear what everybody has to say, and to see them standing up for everything."
The district is scheduled to have three more town hall meetings in the coming weeks.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.