LAND O'LAKES — Through three years of budget cuts, the Pasco School Board has made every effort to avoid layoffs.
That's a priority the board is unlikely to be able to follow again as it targets another $28 million to $30 million in spending reductions for fiscal 2011.
"There will be some layoffs this year," superintendent Heather Fiorentino told the board Tuesday during a workshop. "There is no way to avoid that."
How many depends on several factors, such as attrition through other programs, including an early retirement buyout. A key point will be whether the board decides to have all middle and high school teachers instruct six of six periods daily instead of the current five.
That change could save the district $12 million by reducing the need for teachers, particularly in electives.
"Eighty-five percent of my budget is people," Fiorentino said, making clear that there's no way to achieve the level of cuts needed without slimming down.
Already, the district has hundreds fewer employees than it did just three years ago. It had just under 10,000 workers in 2007, compared with just over 9,300 now. It has eliminated nearly a quarter of all administrative positions.
Compliance with the final phase of the class-size reduction amendment will require the hiring of about 250 teachers in core courses such as English and math, at a cost of about $13 million. To make the hires, teachers in other areas, as well as noninstructional staff, could lose their jobs.
Sarasota schools are in a similar situation, having begun to cut positions to make room for the added teachers. Other districts, including Broward and Monroe, have started issuing pink slips as well to balance their budgets.
Pasco schools are in the middle of preparing their staff allocations for the next school year. Fiorentino urged the School Board to make a decision about the number of periods each teacher must work, so the administration can finish preparing and end the suspense for employees.
"I'm going to be blunt," she said. "Are we doing six out of six?"
Board members hemmed and hawed, saying they didn't want to force the issue but wondering where else they could find $12 million in savings. They didn't reach a consensus.
Instead, they asked the administration to come back in a week with more details to help them arrive at the right decision.
They were similarly indecisive on proposals involving dipping into reserves, cutting athletics and eliminating bus service for International Baccalaureate and career academy programs.
The board faces such drastic choices after several years of shrinking revenue. During the recent Florida legislative session, lawmakers aimed to leave the education budget unchanged.
The results show Pasco with a 1.07 percent increase in operating revenue.
That increase is based on what Fiorentino called "make believe money" — an assumption that property values won't shrink as much as projected, that local property taxes will generate higher payments than usual, and that student enrollment will increase more than expected.
More than that, chief financial officer Olga Swinson said, the budget sets a base student allocation that's lower than the past year, too. And it does not take into account rising costs of fuel, insurance and retirement contributions, not to mention any newly approved unfunded mandates.
"Everybody is going to say, 'But we gave you more money.' They are correct," Swinson said. "Yes, it is about a 1 percent increase when we compare it to last year. However, that is not necessarily true when you go deep into the budget."
She and Fiorentino suggested that the district could generate $5.6 million with a .25 mill local tax for critical operating needs. The board can impose the tax for one year before seeking voter approval to extend it.
Several districts, including Pinellas, adopted the tax last year. This year, many of the remaining ones, including Indian River and Martin, either have already approved the tax or are in the process.
The United School Employees of Pasco has encouraged the Pasco board to take the same step.
"It is your final decision," Fiorentino said. "But to get the money they say you will receive … I believe the Legislature is pushing you to do that."
The board scheduled another budget workshop for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, at which time it is expected to give the administration some direction on how to balance the budget.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.