LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco School Board unanimously, albeit reluctantly, decided to cut all literacy coaches and media and instructional technology specialists from the schools next year, eliminating about 175 positions.
Even more cuts could soon follow, as the board learned Tuesday that its projected $19.5 million deficit for 2013-14 now looks more like a $25.5 million shortfall.
"It's going to be tough," superintendent Kurt Browning told the board during a budget workshop. "All the big chunks of money are gone. … I don't know how we get there."
School Board members, who approved the media specialist changes to save $4.8 million, told the superintendent to find more recurring sources of spending to reduce. They did not want to dip into reserves, noting how that move would simply push off problems for another year.
"This is all the money we have, and we've got to live within our means," chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said. "It's going to mean some more hard cuts and it's going to make more people unhappy."
There was already plenty of unhappiness to go around after the board's vote to eliminate the specialist jobs. Faculty and staff members, as well as their supporters, had made impassioned pleas not to alter the positions that many see as a key component to a well running school.
They will be replaced by 80 new school-based super-specialist jobs that would merge the media, literacy and technology roles into one. The people losing their jobs could apply for one of those new positions, or put in for a classroom teaching assignment.
The district also will establish a regional roving "geek squad" to handle technology repair and maintenance needs.
Browning said the move would save close to $4.8 million, while also improving the district's instructional model. He said the district's abysmal achievement data must get better.
"Every year we get more and more kids left behind," he said, noting that nearly 900 third-graders are held back annually because of low FCAT performance. "Until we fully implement this plan, I don't think we will see the student gains we need to see."
He suggested that classroom teachers have come to rely too heavily on media and technology specialists, who often help integrate computers, programs and software into lessons, while also troubleshooting technology problems. The goal, he said, is to have teachers better able to incorporate technology and literacy into their work, with support from the specialists.
"We want to take it off the backs of those people … and not be so dependent on those three people," Browning said.
Assistant superintendent Amelia Larson stressed that the new specialist job was based on academic requirements coming forth in Common Core standards, and not solely a financial decision. "We are not expecting one person to do three jobs," Larson said. "We are expecting one person to have a focus on the key essential qualities we need to move forward."
Board members delayed action on a similar plan in April, and they remained hesitant to support it Tuesday. They did not like the negative impact to highly effective employees who have positive daily influence on students.
They also worried about the speed of the transition to a new model.
"It is the role of the board to come up with a bold plan," board member Joanne Hurley said. "But we don't want to drive the car off the cliff."
Hurley said she would vote for the change only because no other credible budget cutting proposal had come forth.
Board members Alison Crumbley and Steve Luikart echoed Hurley's remarks.
"I am very reluctant," Luikart said, "but there is a hole there and we've got to fill it."
And as board member Allen Altman noted, after six years of cutting, with most money tied up in salaries and benefits, there are few other places to look.
"Current data implores us to do something different," Altman said. "I do not see any way to make change without affecting schools. … If we don't make these choices then we're going to be impacting in another area."
Board members said they want to make sure the process works properly, and called for regular updates to ensure the new system does not falter because of details that have yet to be established.
To end the meeting, Browning called the board brave.
"I know these are tough times and tough decisions to be made," Browning said. "I just want to thank you for being bold in your decisionmaking today."
Browning then gave a "shout out" to all teachers in the district for Teacher Appreciation Week.
Board members then entered their workshop, where chief finance officer Olga Swinson revealed that the district's deficit appeared larger than initially thought. Part of the problem, she said, was that the new money provided by lawmakers didn't cover all the costs of current business, as well as costs associated with new legislation and state rules.
The district's contribution to retirement will rise, for instance, costing another $6.17 million, she said, while new dual enrollment requirements will cost the district about another $2 million.
The state also did not provide money for raises for non-instructional employees, while funding teacher raises, Browning noted. To provide similar percentage pay hikes to those workers, Browning said, the district would need another $3.5 million.
Board members said they want to increase pay, to keep morale up. But they wanted the money to come from ongoing expenses, not reserves.
"Well," Browning responded, "I am open to suggestions, board members."
They agreed to provide ideas, and asked Browning to offer a list of possibilities for them to rank. They expect to have another budget discussion at their next meeting May 21.