LAND O'LAKES — Nine million dollars is no chump change for the Pasco school district.
Especially after the district cut $16-million from its spending plan to start the year, and some $8.7-million more to deal with income shortfalls in the fall.
But district leaders sounded hopeful Tuesday that their worst fear — that the Florida Legislature would slash education funding by another 3 percent, or about $15-million locally — appears unlikely to pass. Budget proposals coming out of the legislative special session consider a smaller 2 percent cut, with some ability to allow districts to spend money more flexibly tossed in to further ease the pain.
That would allow Pasco to make it through the spring without layoffs and without some of the deep cuts that could threaten academic and extracurricular programs.
"Who would have ever thought that I would think a $9-million cut is good?" superintendent Heather Fiorentino said. "But $9-million is still pretty harsh."
She and her staff have told the School Board that moves such as reallocating grant funds, postponing textbook purchases and cutting department-level budgets will still be necessary to balance the budget. Department heads plan to spend much of next week reviewing line items for any possible reductions.
That approach pleases board member Kathryn Starkey, who has expressed a general distaste for across-the-board budget hacks.
"I personally like to continue to do strategic cuts rather than wholesale cutting," Starkey said.
She also praised the administration for offering lawmakers concrete examples of how to make it easier for school districts to spend the money they do have.
Knowing that lawmakers can amend the new budget proposals until it leaves the floor on Friday, Fiorentino and others crafted some possible bill language for local lawmakers to consider. The suggestions include delaying the state textbook adoption cycle and letting districts put off creation of K-8 virtual education programs.
State Rep. John Legg, vice chairman of the House Pre-K-12 Appropriations Committee, welcomed any ideas, saying it's important for the Legislature to avoid slashing the appropriated budget at midyear.
"We're doing what we can to not take away money we've already told individuals we're going to be giving them," Legg said.
It's easier to deal with a smaller budget at the start of the fiscal year, when school boards are setting their spending priorities, he suggested.
The comparatively limited cuts that are moving through the special session have worried school district officials, though, that bigger cuts loom in the offing for 2009-10, instead.
"What's next year's budget going to look like?" wondered Pasco School Board chairman Frank Parker. "At this point, I'm just going to say it's going to be ugly."
United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb refused to guess whether the district would still be able to avoid layoffs. Starkey predicted that the private sector would need to bolster high school athletics, career academies and other things that the community has viewed as important.
"This cut is nothing more than a practice run for what's going to come next year," Fiorentino said. "Next year is going to be 10 times worse."
One positive thing the budget situation has done for Pasco: It's pushed the administration and employees' association to work more cooperatively than in the past few years.
"I think the seriousness of the budgetary crisis has compelled us to really do more face to face, and not rely on messages sent up and down the chain of command," Webb said. "It seems to have helped at this point."
The sides plan to set up a joint budget working committee in the next few weeks. The School Board is scheduled to hold a budget workshop on Jan. 20.
The special session is slated to end on Jan. 16, and anything can happen until then.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.