Pasco School Board looks to trim budget by $30-million

LAND O'LAKES — A week ago, Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino told the School Board the district faced a budget cut of about $20-million.

On Monday, Fiorentino was looking at a number closer to $30-million as she worked to arrange a budget priority setting workshop with the board. That amount represents a cut of about 6 percent of this year's $527-million operating budget.

She spent much of the day huddled with the district's finance team, trying to attach numbers to a list of potential budget reductions and to determine the full nature of the Legislature's spending plan for fiscal 2008-09. (The budget book wasn't due out until late evening.)

"We're looking at every program. We're looking at every position that is frozen. We're looking at every position that can be frozen," Fiorentino said. "There are no sacred cows."

Even as they talked about wanting to protect the classroom and jobs, board members agreed that every area where the district spends its general revenue must come under scrutiny to ensure the cuts come in the least painful and most effective places.

"We're going to be doing big things, not little things," vice chairman Frank Parker said. "I'm not going to say 'cut' anymore. I'm going to say 'chop' now, because this is not going to be pretty."

Parker didn't want to talk about any specific ideas, to avoid being committed to things that might not pan out. But he did say he expected the hits to be "drastic."

Board member Marge Whaley also would not state her priorities for reductions, saying she wanted to know the consequences different moves would have. But she did send Fiorentino a two-page list of questions for consideration.

She asked, for example, about possible savings that might come from eliminating courtesy bus rides to students who live closer than 2 miles from school and who would not have to cross hazardous walking zones.

She inquired about the cost of annual raises based on employees' years of service, the possibility of eliminating two directors and five supervisors and their secretaries in the district office, and the cutting of middle school sports.

"Some of these items would be dead last on my list, but I tried to look at every department," Whaley wrote.

"I left out some areas because I simply do not know enough about their funding sources: ESE was one of those."

If she were pressed for a place to start, she said, that would be the board's budget.

Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said she hoped to protect employee jobs when possible.

She also planned to continue seeking ways to save money by sharing public projects with other entities, such as jointly run parks, and she intended to keep middle school sports from the budget ax.

"I feel if we don't keep middle school sports, then the Sheriff's Office costs are going to go up" as more young teens are home unattended, she said.

Starkey noted that the district has done what it can to keep its budget in check, taking such actions as freezing teaching allocations, considering closing all schools on Fridays during the summer and asking all department directors for lists of what could be cut.

That's on top of what the district did this year to make the loss of $10-million in state funding as painless as possible.

The district held 10 percent of each department's budget in abeyance, just in case the cuts came, and it also did not fill vacant nonteaching jobs for six weeks or longer.

"We absorbed a $10-million cut last year, and I would say most people wouldn't even realize we had the $10-million cut," Fiorentino said.

That's good, in that the cuts didn't hurt, and bad, in that many district employees seem to think this year's reductions will have a similarly limited effect, she said.

And that's just not realistic, as "I don't believe we've hit bottom."

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 School Board looks to trim budget by $30-million 04/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 2:48pm]

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