A proposal by Pinellas school officials to impose wage cuts on 16,000 employees met with strong opposition Wednesday as union leaders and some School Board members suggested there may be other ways out of the district's budget crisis.
"As long as it's taken us to get our salaries up to where they are now, to talk about reducing salaries is just shameful," said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.
Black criticized a proposal announced Tuesday by superintendent Clayton Wilcox to cut pay for all employees by 2 percent, saying it was too radical.
"That's not going to happen," she said. "This is clearly all going to be worked out in bargaining."
The district will meet with union heads Friday, and board members will discuss the proposed cuts in a workshop today.
Wilcox predicted stiff opposition Tuesday, saying union members were not likely to ratify a salary cut and that the School Board could be forced into the uncomfortable posture of having to impose one. But he insisted there were few other options with $43-million to cut from a budget that is 85 percent salaries and benefits.
"Quite honestly, we are up against a proverbial rock and a hard place," he told district employees. "We honestly believe that we've cut well into the muscle and well into the bone, and there's no place left to turn."
He also invited people to come forward with their own ideas, saying, "If you go home this evening and you have that eureka moment, please don't sit on it."
Many are ready to take him up on it.
The district should "go back to the table and let's look at some other alternatives," said School Board member Mary Brown. "When this is over, I want to be able to say we have looked at all of the cuts we had to … and that we considered our employees and we considered our students."
Board member Linda Lerner questioned the process that led to the proposal, noting that members of Wilcox's cabinet were not shown the full list of cuts until the day they were made public.
"I just think we need to think about some other options," said School Board member Janet Clark.
Board chairwoman Nancy Bostock said she liked an idea submitted by some teachers to delay the scheduled adoption of a new round of elementary school reading books.
"Reading is reading; it doesn't change from one year to another," said Bonney Moore, a teacher at Marjorie K. Rawlings Elementary.
The idea was probably the best of all the suggestions to come from district personnel Wednesday, said Bostock, who planned to discuss it with administrators. "Without knowing all the facts," she said, "it sure sounds like a good idea to me."
Board member Jane Gallucci said she wanted to reserve comment until she saw a full presentation from the district's budget officials, who have "pretty much been on the money" with their predictions.
She added: "This is heart wrenching to me for a district that I love."
Black, the union president, said teachers expressed shock that a proposal to cut salaries would come on the heels of a January referendum in which Pinellas voters renewed a special property tax used primarily to enhance teacher salaries.
The tax, first approved in 2004, has financed average teacher raises of 9 percent in 2005, 6.4 percent in 2006 and 4.7 percent in 2007.
The average teacher salary has climbed from $41,092 in 2004 to more than $48,000 this year. The scale ranges from $37,300 for a beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree to $64,370 for a teacher with a doctorate and at least 27 years' experience.
In addition to the 2 percent wage cut, Wilcox and his staff have proposed reassigning 170 employees, eliminating 147 positions, canceling contracts and ending programs.
About 2,000 employees would avoid the 2 percent cut but would suffer a 30-minute cut in their work day.
Wilcox also has proposed the long-term step of closing seven to 10 schools to address declining enrollment.
Since he's resigning effective in early June to take a private-sector job, decisions on closings will fall to his successor. But Wilcox said the district would likely start by revisiting a list of 10 closures developed last year.
Three of those schools will close at the end of this year: Largo Central and South Ward elementary schools and Riviera Middle School. A fourth, Clearview Avenue Elementary, will close next year.
The others on the old list are Anona, Gulf Beaches, North Ward, Orange Grove, Rio Vista and San Jose elementary schools, and Southside Fundamental Middle School.
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8923.