LAND O'LAKES — The complaints began soon after the Pasco School Board's list of possible budget cuts became public.
All the leading options — furloughs, layoffs, salary reductions and higher benefit fees among them — appeared to affect employees. Meanwhile, ideas such as scaling back athletics, arts and extracurricular programs, sounded as if they wouldn't get much consideration as the district looks to cut $24.7 million in spending.
To a staff of more than 9,000 people, many of whom have weathered the majority of the district's spending reductions over four years, another round of more of the same sounded like piling on.
"This is not going to be an easy year," said Jim Ciadella, a lead negotiator for the United School Employees of Pasco. "Are we going to have a lot of happy people? No."
Board member Allen Altman said he heard from teachers and parents alike over the weekend. While the educators looked to protect their livelihoods and professions, parents sought to keep cuts from impacting their children's classrooms.
He suggested that both are simply seeing the same proposals from different angles, but that they will hurt equally.
"Whatever cuts we do now will impact our employees very personally and have an effect on our classrooms," Altman said.
That's because, as board member Alison Crumbley pointed out, cutting people leads to reducing or eliminating programs, and vice versa. Yet with about 86 percent of the district operating budget going toward salaries and benefits, she continued, the options are limited when trying to meet the requirement of a balanced budget.
"I hate that every year now, they're taking a hit in one way or the other," Crumbley said. "Here is another year of all our employees taking the brunt of it. It's not pleasant."
She and others stood fast by their resolve to maintain athletics and other extras for students, calling them dropout prevention initiatives. But they did not rule out some other moves that do not directly affect employees, such as cutting unfunded courtesy bus rides to students living closer than 2 miles from school.
"We are certainly looking very strongly at every other place we can save money," board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said. "There really is no sacred cow."
She noted that many of the expenses the district must cover come from Tallahassee in the form of unfunded mandates. Perhaps the biggest one is the state class size reduction mandate, which voters said the state should pay for, and not the local districts.
When district officials decided not to comply in 2011 because state funds did not cover the costs, the state assessed a $4 million fine against the district. Now Pasco is looking to hire more teachers, to keep its fine down to about $1 million. But because of the added teacher hiring amid another round of budget shortfalls, Armstrong said, other cutting is needed.
"That's a no-win scenario," she said, commenting that the Legislature needs to find ways to make it easier for districts to spend the money they have, if no additional funding is coming.
The state's 2012-13 budget plan added about $1 billion into K-12 spending, but that was after cutting it by the same amount a year earlier.
Board member Steve Luikart, a former assistant principal whose wife is a teacher, said his goal is to limit the pain for students, teachers and anyone else who is directly involved with instruction and learning.
"That has got to be our obligation," he said. "We are educators first."
It's easy, Luikart suggested, to offer up solutions such as across- the-board pay cuts and furloughs. Harder decisions require more insight, investigation and fortitude, he continued, offering such possibilities as consolidating more bus routes and eliminating some district-level positions.
"I am going to keep going after the areas that I think don't affect students or teachers," he said, adding, "It's hard to believe that some people won't even listen to ideas."
The USEP continues to make recommendations, too. Union leaders still want to see how much money might be saved as the district hires less experienced employees to take the jobs that veteran employees are leaving, among other budget questions.
They also contend the district can find more than 19 certified teachers in other jobs — providing staff training and administrative duties, for instance — and return them to the classroom to save money. The union firmly opposes one idea to require employees to chip in $10 to $20 a month toward their health insurance, a benefit that has always been fully covered.
"We are not interested in opening the door for employees to pay into their benefits," Ciadella said.
But the fact remains, he said, that more cuts are likely in order to make ends meet.
"There is no magic bullet. I wish there was. We'd be advocating that," Ciadella said. "We'll do the best we can and we hope the district will meet us."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.