LAND O'LAKES — As if they didn't have enough bad news.
Pasco School Board members, who already have passed a no-raises budget with $16-million in cuts, heard more financial doom and gloom Tuesday during a presentation by longtime Tallahassee education lobbyist Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
Blanton warned the board to expect additional cuts of at least 4 percent, or around $12-million, during the remainder of the current fiscal year as the state continues to grapple with declining tax revenue. He cautioned against making long-term financial commitments.
"Anything beyond June of this year you should not commit to," Blanton said. "I don't think you can commit to a contractual obligation for salaries or fringe benefits or anything like that."
The district and the United School Employees of Pasco are in the middle of negotiations, in which the employees face the prospect of a salary freeze. They have asked for their annual step increase plus a 3 percent raise.
Blanton also urged the board to press lawmakers to eliminate some tax loopholes and unfunded mandates, so school districts can have more money available and fewer spending restrictions attached to it. Additionally, he suggested pursuing a four-year statewide 1 percent sales tax to support education, and called for support in seeking further delay in implementing the 2002 class-size reduction amendment.
"I'm a native Floridian and I always go by the philosophy shoot the gator closest to the boat," he said, calling the amendment perhaps the biggest short-term threat to education budgets. "Long-range planning right now in Tallahassee is an oxymoron."
Board member Marge Whaley asked Blanton his thoughts about moving to a four-day school week as a way to save money. He advised that the idea might not generate as much savings as desired.
Board and union members took copious notes during the work session, which followed a regular board meeting that also focused on budget matters.
During that meeting, board member Allen Altman asked the administration to work with local businesses to put together special discount programs for district employees, who are facing tough times financially. Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey talked about the possibility of offering extra pay for teachers who take assignments in the district's most needy schools.
USEP president Lynne Webb told the board her concerns about the slow progress being made during contract negotiations, noting employees are signing up for health benefits they're not sure they can afford.
"Our employees deserve more than lip service about the status of their benefits," Webb said. "They have not had a written agreement, and that needs to change. Our teachers and [school related personnel] are feeling extreme anxiety and deserve to know what to expect."
Meanwhile, Land O'Lakes mom Vicki Paganus took it upon herself to come up with one possible solution to help with the district's money woes. Admittedly, she noted, it wouldn't solve every problem, but at least it's an attempt.
Her idea? A districtwide fund raiser. If every school sold 1,000 boxes of frozen cookie dough, Paganus said, the revenue would near $600,000.
"Maybe we could become a model for other school districts," she said.
Starkey thanked Paganus for the idea and asked superintendent Heather Fiorentino to have staff look into it.
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.