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Pasco schools' funding cuts are bad, with worse on the way

LAND O'LAKES — The time has come for the Pasco School Board to make some tough decisions.

After already cutting $16-million in spending, the board faces a deficit of about $8.6-million, with expectations that another $10-million to $15-million in cuts will come as early as January. An additional $40-million beyond that could be slashed from the 2009-10 budget.

"It doesn't seem like we're at the bottom of the pit yet," board Chairman Frank Parker said. "We have to approach this as if there are no sacred cows. There is nothing that can't go."

Parker expected the board to firm up its first round of cuts during a budget workshop that begins at 4 p.m. today. During that session, the board will review recommendations from superintendent Heather Fiorentino that include freezing about 105 vacant jobs through June, using fees to cover the costs of spring football and JV softball and baseball, canceling purchases of band and chorus uniforms, and reducing district-level travel by 50 percent.

That's just the beginning.

The administration has issued a list of possible ways to meet the next round of anticipated revenue reductions from the state. Since the cut would come with only about five months remaining in the budget year, with many contracts in place, the staff looks to move money around from account to account to cover the shortfall.

For instance, it is considering how capital projects funds might be used to pay for property insurance, something that would require state approval. That approval might not be easy to get, as the state wants districts to have enough money to meet the class-size amendment before it changes the use of its capital funds. Pasco does not.

The district also would seek a 10 percent discount from its professional consultants and look to reduce district level department budgets as well. It lists its fund balances in the Pepsi, after-school program and general accounts as a "last resort" for money.

"We are just running out of places to go," chief financial officer Olga Swinson said.

That makes the next set of anticipated cuts look even more painful.

"We know the budget is going to be worse," Swinson said. "And we can't do the same cuts we did this year, because we already used those."

That's where a lengthy list of ideas comes into play. District employees, parents and others have submitted their thoughts, which Fiorentino and her team have compiled into a seven-page, 60-item "Plan C" for the board to discuss. Among the ideas:

• Change middle and high school schedules.

• Cut one paid holiday.

• Eliminate all athletics and extracurricular activities.

• Consolidate administrative positions.

• Close district environmental centers.

At least one board member is growing frustrated with the seemingly piecemeal approach to the fiscal crisis. And she hasn't even been on the board very long.

Board member Joanne Hurley, who took office one month ago, said she can't understand why the district has yet to take a multiyear approach to the situation rather than looking at "dollars here and dollars there from the existing accounts."

"I still want to see the bigger picture," Hurley said. "I have priorities, but I'd like to know the priorities of the other board members."

She planned to initiate a conversation about the things the district needs to keep. That should help determine what can be cut, she figured.

Parker said his top priority will remain keeping the classroom untouched as much as is feasible. He added that he wants to avoid layoffs if possible. And he said he and others need to impress upon state leaders the districts' need to spend what they have flexibly, rather than be bound by stringent rules for every dollar.

"I wish I could give you a big fat answer that there was a miracle, that we could do this and that and it will save us," Parker said.

None of the lists included that recommendation, though.

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' funding cuts are bad, with worse on the way 12/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 1:31pm]
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