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Pasco School Board spars with administration over spending, large and small

LAND O'LAKES — Joanne Hurley was not happy.

Tucked within the Pasco School Board's consent agenda — the section that's designed to have no discussion because it's supposed to be noncontroversial items — sat a simple $7,000 contract for legal services already provided. It related to a mediation hearing with a charter school.

To district officials, it represented the cost of doing business. To Hurley, it meant much more.

"The School Board and the board attorney were the last ones to know about this," Hurley, the board's chairwoman, said angrily.

She asked for, and received, permission from her colleagues at Tuesday's meeting to instruct superintendent Heather Fiorentino to revise district policy to make it abundantly clear that only the board has the authority to hire lawyers for district legal work.

"I'm extremely disappointed that this continues to happen," board vice chairman Allen Altman said. "I thought the policy was pretty clear and laid out."

That was just the tip of the iceberg.

On Tuesday, the board pulled 11 items from the consent agenda, more than during any other board meeting that even longtime employees could recall. The items included contracts, job descriptions and employee allocations.

If there was a connection between all the items, it was money, which is in increasingly short supply as the district cuts people and positions to cover an expected shortfall.

"I'm trying to watch our pennies," board member Alison Crumbley said as she questioned the proposed purchase of thousands of student planners. "All I see is that it's $71,000 spent on a planner that doesn't get used most of the time."

But there was an undercurrent, too — that of the board flexing its growing independence from an administration that has tended to keep tight controls over board action. Such frustrations sparked a couple of weeks ago, and blossomed Tuesday.

"There's some of that," Altman acknowledged, adding quickly that the board's activity Tuesday also was "a function of what's on there," referring to the agenda.

And there was a lot "on there" that drew the board members' attention.

Altman took issue with a proposal to remove $15,000 that funds half a secretarial position that reports to the Pasco Education Foundation. It was part of a larger item that looked to eliminate 38 administration-related positions.

The foundation has agreed to work toward weaning itself from district support, he said, but it's not ready to go all the way.

"They are not prepared to accept this," he said. "To me, even though these are all difficult decisions … I would think we should be assisting the foundation in every way we can, since they are assisting us in raising money."

The board retained the funding, even though it means cutting another position of like cost.

Board member Steve Luikart questioned a $115,000 contract with a virtual education provider. He said he went online to look at the site and learned that a family could contract directly with the provider for $400 less than the firm is charging the school district.

Only after learning that the district receives more services and oversight was he willing to offer his support.

Board members also raised concerns about creating a new director of secondary schools position, which would replace the deleted assistant superintendent for high schools job. They suggested it would be better to wait until they review the entire organizational structure rather than create job descriptions that might change.

They eventually acquiesced, with Altman stating, "The right way to do it was to have discussion and analysis . . . but we haven't had time to do that." The need to have people working in key positions is immediate, he said, and the board can revisit the issue later.

As the meeting wound down, some staffers remarked that the agenda had looked innocuous enough. Yet the debate on several issues took the session much longer than expected.

In closing the meeting, Hurley made clear that the board expects to have more input on key issues.

"We need to work on communication," she said. "It's my hope we will get involved earlier and more often."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

.Notebook

Staff reappointments approved

In other action Tuesday, the School Board:

• Approved the reappointment of district employees for 2011-12. The administration removed just one name, Sunlake High assistant principal Erin Galletta, from the list before asking for approval.

• Approved several amendments to the student code of conduct for 2011-12.

• Learned that the Florida Department of Education has approved the district's plans to raze and replace aging Schrader Elementary School.

• Heard a report on the future of the district's nine Kelly-design schools, which have been recommended for renovations or replacement. Officials made plans to visit similar schools in other counties before making decisions on how to proceed.

Pasco School Board spars with administration over spending, large and small 06/07/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 7, 2011 7:37pm]
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