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Meetings collect ideas to trim millions from Pinellas schools' budget

Some Pinellas County parents told district officials Monday they are ready to pony up their own money to help combat an anticipated school funding shortfall of up to $86 million next year.

Keeping old textbooks and streamlining bus procedures were among other cost-cutting suggestions of dozens of parents and teachers who attended "budget community input" meetings at six schools Monday night.

The ideas will be turned over to the district staff, which is exploring ways to slice at least $34.6 million from next year's budget.

But if state legislators approve Gov. Rick Scott's proposal to cut statewide education spending by 10 percent, Pinellas would have to cut as much as $86 million, or $780 per student, officials said. That's on top of the $118 million they've cut in the past five years through measures including school closures, mergers and a hiring freeze.

"It's a tough year ahead," said Michael Bessette, the district's associate superintendent of facilities, operations, safety and security, and moderator of the Dunedin High School meeting. "It's important for us to get input from as many venues, from as many people, as we can. Nothing is too far out of the box."

Staffers will post the compiled community input gathered Monday night on the district's website, pcsb.org.

Many of the ideas matched those already being tossed around by district officials, including:

• More aggressively advertise to community groups that school space is available for lease for private events.

• Reduce busing costs through measures like a bus hub or an agreement with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

• Move middle- and high-school students to a four-day week and incorporate virtual classes into their schedules in an effort to cut down on costs for air conditioning and heating, lunch and bus fuel.

Several parents and teachers suggested scaling back to the bare bones essentials of reading, writing and arithmetic, and cutting out extras like sports, music and drama.

"I have students who don't even know what two-plus-two is, but they can tell me every sports statistic," Azalea Middle School teacher Rachel Morrison told 50 to 60 people who attended the meeting at Seminole High School.

Critics countered that extracurricular activities often are the only things that keep students in school.

At Dunedin High, several of the roughly 30 parents and teachers in the audience nodded in agreement as multiple speakers pushed for implementing activity fees for sports and other extracurricular activities.

"Junior varsity and varsity — 20 to 25 kids per squad — there's a lot of money to be had," said Laura Gilroy, whose sophomore son and senior daughter attend Clearwater High School. "I'd be more than happy to pay $20 and know it's going to stay completely with my team."

Veatrice Farrell, who said her children will attend county schools next year, was among about 40 people who showed up at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School. She suggested the district pool its money with that of the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board because their programs overlap, she said. Farrell acknowledged that legislative action would be needed to eliminate the JWB and merge the two.

Several teachers and parents said the district might gain small pools of money by trading in $2,500 computer-based Smart Boards for cheaper chalkboards, making do with old furniture or eschewing new textbooks.

"We're getting new textbooks all the time. It doesn't look like math has changed in the last four or five years," said Orange Grove Elementary School physical education teacher Gary Curtis.

Some audience members, however, said the district had waited too long to conduct the meetings.

The district began making cuts years ago, and it was clear early on that more cuts would be needed, the critics said. The district should have started planning earlier.

Pinellas Park Elementary School music teacher Kristen Schibener cautioned that requirements for more technology or a four-day week might burden economically disadvantaged parents and students.

For example, she said, many Pinellas Park Elementary students live in local motels. Florida Department of Education data shows 78 percent of students at that school receive free or reduced-price lunch — often an indicator of poverty.

"Some of my students really are their own parents, unfortunately," Schibener said.

Bessette said the district is focused on reducing costs in a way that is equitable for all students.

District officials joked that Bill Harting, a Clearwater resident whose daughter is in second grade at Dunedin Elementary, stole their closing with his admonishment to parents.

"If you are unhappy about the spending being done in schools, you need to contact your legislators and make your voice heard — loudly," Harting said. "Also, we need to get rid of this concept that all taxes are bad. We need to pay for basic services. I'm willing to pull money out of my pocket to pay for our schools."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Meetings collect ideas to trim millions from Pinellas schools' budget 03/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 6:27pm]
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