WESLEY CHAPEL — What a difference a year makes.
Last spring, hundreds of Pasco residents jammed into school cafeterias to talk passionately about the school district's budget and where School Board members should and shouldn't cut.
On Monday, just 35 people — more than half of them school district staffers — came to John Long Middle School for the first of five budget town hall meetings. Several of them came with complaints, not suggestions.
"You're not doing anything except begging the population to fix your problem," Seven Oaks resident Bill Helms told board chairwoman Joanne Hurley. "You've got way more money than you need to do a good job."
Hurley opened the town hall meeting by telling the sparse crowd that the district faces a possible budget shortfall of $25.3 million, and after four years of cutting, the next round of reductions will hurt.
"We operate with your money, so we want to be accountable, efficient, and we also want you to be involved in the process," she said.
Some in the audience took that invitation to heart, offering ideas on how to tackle the projected hole. For the most part, they focused on raising revenue rather than slashing spending.
"I know there are some things you can't do," said Pam Marron, an arts advocate who last year helped galvanize support against cuts to music, drama and art programs. "We could augment some of the costs that you need, if you just tell us what is needed."
People suggested fund raisers and added student fees — a "drop in the bucket," perhaps, but at least they could help.
Cuts remained a conversation point. Tiffany Ragsdale, who has four children, suggested scaling back bus routes.
"It's not going to happen until it starts affecting the parents," she said.
Some parents simply demanded answers. "What are your ideas?" Joe Wanner of Wesley Chapel called out.
Hurley said she didn't have a list, but that she preferred reductions to elimination of programs. She added that personnel moves, the district's biggest expense, will depend upon the superintendent's recommendations. Those are due next week.
"That is a cop-out!" Wanner shouted. "This budget is absolutely ridiculous."
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino and spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli later took Wanner aside to explain more budget details to him.
After the session, Hurley considered her time well spent.
"Of course it's worthwhile," she said. "You had parents and staff and students come out and talk about what is most important to them. Many of the suggestions they have are valuable to me, because now I'm looking at it through their eyes."
Hurley planned to add a list of possible cuts to the board's presentation at similar town hall meetings this week. The board has scheduled a budget workshop on Friday.
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.