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More school budget trouble looms

BROOKSVILLE — Labor says the glass is half empty, and management says it's half full.

Over most of the summer, that was a pretty good description of the contract talks between the Hernando County School Board and the teachers union.

For weeks, superintendent Wayne Alexander described the district's proposed 3.5 percent raise and 1.5 percent health care boost as the state's most generous offer, while union officials pushed for a bit more.

But that half-full glass may have sprung a leak this week, with the news that state funding cuts could be twice as severe as predicted.

District enrollment is expected to be down from projections by 428 state-funded students, said finance director Deborah Bruggink. And state officials have said plunging tax revenues may increase an anticipated "holdback" of funds from 2 percent to 4 percent.

All told, she said, the district could be looking at a $3.5-million shortfall at the same time it tries to boost teacher salaries.

On Thursday, union negotiators proposed a 4 percent raise plus a 1.5 percent increase for health care premiums.

"Both sides are very close," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. "But the state is now saying they want more money back."

Such changes call into question Gov. Charlie Crist's commitment to protect teachers and schools from further cuts, Vitalo said. Nevertheless, he urged the School Board to set its priorities correctly and find the money to boost teacher salaries.

On another contract issue, differences over a teacher dress code proposal appear to have been largely resolved, he said. The union has proposed contract language that would require teachers simply to dress "appropriately and professionally."

But more than 90 percent of teachers oppose a district proposal to attend two additional staff meetings per month without pay, according to a union survey.

Alexander said Friday that the district's previous offer of a 3.5 percent raise is still on the table — for now.

"But I am really concerned about what happens down the road, as early as next week," he added.

Raising teacher salaries and recruiting top talent is a priority for the School Board, Alexander said. But declining revenues may be pushing the county and state in opposite directions.

"My biggest fear is that at some point in this academic year, statewide, we'll have to look at reducing people," he said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

More school budget trouble looms 09/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 12:06pm]
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