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In $1.2-billion Pasco schools budget, no room for raises

LAND O'LAKES — All the teachers chanting about "doing the right thing" could not dissuade the Pasco School Board from adopting its 2008-09 budget late Tuesday.

"All of us appreciate you coming here and talking to us," board member Marge Whaley told the overflow audience toward the end of a nearly three-hour public hearing. "But you have to understand, the budget is fluid and we must approve a budget today. We do not have a choice."

Whaley and others reminded the employees that the $1.2-billion budget represents a starting point, and that it can be amended as the district's financial situation changes. This year, the district withheld about $6-million that would have paid for annual raises based on years of service.

The governor plans to hold back about $4-million in December, and the Department of Education is likely to keep another $4-million because the district has not met its enrollment projections.

"I'm always hopeful things will change, but our state keeps sending us worse and worse news," board chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said. "The reality is, you probably won't have all your friends having jobs by the time the year is out. This is our priority, to keep people employed."

The workers who crowded the room frequently repeated the refrain, "Do the right thing, not the easy thing" during their public comments. They also urged the board to make employees the top priority, frequently jeering what they called the administration's "pet projects" — primarily an unpopular teacher training system called Learning Focused Strategies.

The district has spent about $5-million on the system so far, and superintendent Heather Fiorentino recommended cutting this year's spending on it by 34 percent. Teachers wanted to see it go away, saying any little bit more toward salaries would improve their morale compared to enduring the system any longer.

"I don't feel like a priority on your calendar and in your checkbook," Lake Myrtle Elementary counselor Sherry Helfand told the board before its vote.

Amid all the employees, one resident rose to remind the board that it serves the greater public, too.

"Be aware of the thousands that face foreclosure," Gregory Smith said. "I agree with those who want you to do the right thing and not the easy thing. The tough thing will be deciding what is the right thing."

In the end, the board voted 4-1 to approve the budget, which did not increase the local tax rate. Board member Cathi Martin, who supported the budget back in July, was the only one to vote against it.

"It really doesn't matter on what we vote on tonight, because in three or four months we will have to vote again because of the cuts," Martin told the crowd. She added, "I'm sure you would rather have a job than be unemployed."

The budget, which is 5.47 percent smaller than last year's budget, aimed to reduce spending on substitute teachers and relies on freezing several positions. It cut athletics spending by about $76,000 and delayed implementation of the next phase of the class size reduction amendment, a saving of about $11-million.

The item that drew the most anger was the administration's decision not to include contractually agreed upon pay raises for years of service. Those steps, plus any other salary increases, remain in negotiations.

Representatives for the teachers and administration met again Wednesday.

The administration asked the United School Employees of Pasco to wait until October, though, before it responds to the union's salary request of a 3 percent raise plus step increases.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

In $1.2-billion Pasco schools budget, no room for raises 09/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2008 5:40pm]
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