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Pasco school district helped by federal stimulus money in a tough financial year

LAND O'LAKES

More than 1,000 Pasco County students decided to take classes online through the district's new eSchool during 2009, far exceeding all expectations.

Hundreds more students took advanced placement classes and exams. All the county high schools debuted new career academies to give added academic focus to some students. And every school delved deeper into the use of student performance data to drive curriculum and daily lesson decisions.

Yes, 2009 was a year of tough budget decisions for the Pasco County School District, much as was 2008.

The district's 9,500 employees went a second straight year without raises or step increases, though they did get one-time bonuses. Many teachers did not get their contracts renewed, although the district avoided layoffs, and some had to reapply for newly defined positions.

Several district-level jobs remained unfilled.

Without millions of dollars from the federal stimulus package, in fact, Pasco schools would have faced a much worse fate.

The most drastic threatened cuts never came.

And with Pasco growing minimally, rather than shrinking along with a majority of Florida districts, the school system was able to maintain its programs and even add a few, such as the new K-12 online program and the expanded AP options.

Board members committed the district to improving technology options within the schools, instructing the administration to take money slated for a new district office building and redirect it to campus computer needs.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino also put in motion a year of planning to completely revamp the district's alternative education program, so it's more than just a parking place for misbehaving kids.

The economy did have an impact on the schools, regardless.

Pasco schools saw the rolls of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals rise to unprecedented levels, along with the numbers of homeless students. Rising unemployment in the community also has put the district on track to spend $1 million on unemployment insurance, a tenfold increase over just a year ago.

The money to cover that cost will have to come out of general operations elsewhere. The decision of exactly what to cut has not been made.

The district continued to open new schools, a trend which will continue in 2010. The opening of Anclote High in Holiday kicked off a round of principal transfers across the district that left only a handful of sitting school leaders in their same seats by year's end.

Some parents and educators decried the lack of stability at some schools, such as Mitchell High, which have seen a revolving door on the principal's office. But Fiorentino said she was trying to get the best-qualified people into the places that suited their abilities.

More changes are likely as Fivay High opens in the fall.

The year did feature its share of political news.

During the spring, board member Cathi Martin provided the sparks. Amid calls for her dismissal by county Republican leaders, she announced her resignation because of medical problems. Within a month, Martin changed her mind, saying she was dedicating herself to doing the job well and would work to attend all meetings.

She's missed only a few since then.

By summer, Fiorentino took center stage as word leaked that she would not renew assistant superintendent Ray Gadd's contract. Fiorentino would not comment about her decision, but Gadd — who has since found work elsewhere — said she told him she wanted to go in a new direction with the departments he oversaw.

Several community members excoriated Fiorentino's move, suggesting Gadd was more valuable to the district than she. Board members complained bitterly about the dismissal, but in the end had no authority to overrule it.

Gadd's position remains unfilled.

Other 2009 highlights

• Pasco schools announced Coke is it, ending their 10-year exclusivity deal with Pepsi.

• All high schools required students to take a safe driver course before they could get a campus parking permit.

• American Idol Season Six winner Jordin Sparks made a surprise visit to Seven Oaks Elementary.

• PETA named Pasco one of the nation's most vegetarian-friendly districts.

• The state rated the Pasco County School District high-performing for the first time.

In 2010, the school district promises to have its share of big news, too.

Four of five School Board seats are up for election. The district plans to begin work on a new culinary arts academy at Land O'Lakes High School. Officials still don't know how they're going to meet state class size reduction requirements.

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 district helped by federal stimulus money in a tough financial year 12/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 29, 2009 9:01pm]
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