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Pasco County School Board to discuss budget cuts today

LAND O'LAKES — After school superintendent Heather Fiorentino issued her budget-cutting recommendations, teachers union president Lynne Webb had one overriding hope: that the School Board won't see the list of $16-million in reductions as a done deal.

"The budget doesn't have to be done now," Webb said. "The direction I would like to hear from the School Board is find other means, dig deeper."

Her wish is likely to be granted as the School Board takes its first public look at Fiorentino's proposal, which relies heavily on scaled back compliance with the state's 2002 class-size amendment but also depends upon freezing all salaries at their current levels.

In separate interviews with the St. Petersburg Times, four of the five board members said they expected to have months of discussions to find the right path toward balancing the 2008-09 budget.

"I quite frankly have to get more information to see if I'm on the right track," said board member Allen Altman, who has called for a detailed budget review.

Board chairwoman Kathryn Starkey called the superintendent's list a "good first start," and asserted that it's far from a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Still, she cautioned, people shouldn't expect raises.

"When we get a budget cut as significant as we got, it's difficult to give raises," Starkey said. "To me, jobs is a priority over raises."

Webb said she does not believe most employees will accept stagnant pay rates, especially the cancellation of contracted "step" increases based on years of service, until they're convinced the board and administration have explored all other options for cuts.

"I think it's an easy fix for the district, instead of looking long and hard at a lot of smaller areas," she said, suggesting that Fiorentino might start by cutting back her own administrative team.

Even as some board members agreed that some cuts should start at the top — veteran Marge Whaley noted that the assistant superintendent for elementary education job is vacant and maybe should stay that way — the notion that faculty and staff won't accept the status quo doesn't jibe with what they know.

"I don't think teachers expect their steps," Whaley said. "The teachers I have talked to have not said that. They have said, 'We'd like it, but we realize we're probably not going to get it.' "

Indeed, board vice chairman Frank Parker said, the district leadership would prefer to give raises, "but — and but is in capital letters — from what I see, it's not going to happen."

The tradeoff could be too costly, explained Fiorentino, who reported receiving a handful of calls and e-mails from staff members disappointed at the prospect of losing their steps.

"To have a $6-million step increase would force me to do something I don't want to do, which is charge everyone for benefits," she said.

Fiorentino also received comments about her plan to rely on class-size cutbacks. She planned to send a memo to the staff to explain how that might work.

The issue concerned board members, too.

"It's along the line of where my thoughts were, because the Legislature gave us a pass on the class-size (classroom counts) for next year," Parker said. "My fear is, they're not funding it this year. What are they giving to us next year?"

Board members also had questions about what a 10 percent cut in school funding, or a 15 percent cut in department budgets, translates into when put into effect.

"When you tell a school to cut 10 percent of its budget, and they tell me they're already stretched and teachers tell me they already lack supplies, what are they supposed to cut that doesn't touch the classroom?" Altman said.

Fiorentino acknowledged, "It's going to affect the classroom to some degree. But it's not saying we're going to remove an entire program. It's their discretionary funds."

The big struggle, most agreed, is to get parents, workers, taxpayers and the public to fully understand that the budget is bleak, and that more revenue reductions likely will be expected as the new school year wears on.

Fiorentino said she's already preparing for that day, though she quickly added, "No, I don't have a list."

The School Board meets at 3 p.m. today to begin discussing budget cuts. The meeting is open to the public, but during workshops the public is usually not allowed to speak.

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.

Pasco County School Board to discuss budget cuts today 05/19/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2008 2:41pm]
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