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Pasco schools' budget pain sharpens again

LAND O'LAKES — The bad financial news keeps getting worse for the Pasco County School District.

Just a week ago, superintendent Heather Fiorentino told School Board members they needed to cut about $16-million from the current year's budget.

Now, the number appears closer to $30-million.

That's because on Friday, state economists updated their revenue estimates for the year. They expected Florida to take in $1.4-billion less than the last time they met.

Schools across the state are likely to feel the brunt of the reduction.

"If there is no new influx of revenue (by January), it is expected that K-12 education will be cut by at least $500-million — and this does not include reductions that may occur in local funding due to reduced property tax revenue," Florida School Boards Association lobbyist Ruth Melton wrote to superintendents.

"In general, school districts are advised to brace for an additional 2-3 percent budget cut for this fiscal year."

Pasco, which already has cut $16-million from last year's spending and has not given any raises, can ill afford another cut of such magnitude, Fiorentino said.

"We had plans A, B and C figured out. But now we're at X, Y and Z," said Fiorentino, who's working with staff to craft recommendations for the School Board to review on Monday. If the numbers come back as bad as predicted, "everyone is going to be feeling a little bit of pain. We're down to the bone."

Fiorentino expected the 2009-10 budget to be even worse, and said she has started working on a spending plan based on 2005 levels, when the district had about 5,000 fewer students.

Board members already have begun their homework.

Vice chairman Allen Altman has contacted people in other counties to see how they're dealing with the situation, and has been poring over articles from the state's newspapers.

"My guess is you could speak with any county in the state of Florida and they would tell you there is little or nothing that is not on the table for consideration," Altman said, including Pasco in that category.

He said he has spoken with Pasco district finance officials to discuss the various options.

Board member Kathryn Starkey praised district employees for going over every department's budget and trimming spending without resorting to layoffs or disrupting the education process.

As resources shrink, though, she said, "I don't know how we avoid programs and people."

New cuts will hurt

Joanne Hurley, on the board for less than two weeks, spent Monday visiting departments and asking employees what they see as important, and why, so she can reach some spending decisions.

Going in, Hurley said, she has her own set of priorities. Those are to maintain programs and classes that generate money, to keep everything that's required by law and to ensure students' safety and security is not compromised.

"Anything that is not directly related to kids graduating and getting a job, that's on the table to look at," she said.

Hurley stressed that the situation is not a one-year problem, and suggested the district needs to set a five-year business plan that might include some drastic changes in the way it does its job.

At the same time, she said, school officials must contact state lawmakers to push at the very least for more flexibility in the way districts can spend state money.

"We have to start at the source, and that's the legislative delegation," she said.

'Not going to go away'

State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said the calls already have started pouring in. But it's too soon to have answers for what the Legislature will do with education or any other part of the budget, said Weatherford, a probable chairman of one of the House appropriations committees.

"It's too early to know what policies we're going to put in place to protect education, which I know we're going to do," he said.

Whatever happens, Altman said, Pasco must find a way to live within its means.

"This is not going to go away," he said. "So we just have to deal with it."

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 schools' budget pain sharpens again 11/24/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 26, 2008 4:33pm]
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