LAND O'LAKES — Dozens of Pasco County school employees filled the School Board meeting room Tuesday with a simple message for the board: Don't take our raises away.
"I need a step increase just to try to keep up with the cost of living," Land O'Lakes High teacher Kenny Blankenship told the board. "Please don't make the budget cuts on the backs of employees."
Some brought petitions from their colleagues. Others said they spoke on behalf of their school staff. Some spoke of employees who already are seeking second jobs and struggling to make ends meet. They asked for the raises — and the respect they believe comes with the money.
"It's time for myself and my colleagues to be considered a top priority," Giella Elementary teacher Vivian Garner said.
Garner praised board member Marge Whaley for coming up with ideas during an earlier workshop to try to protect the raises, which superintendent Heather Fiorentino had proposed eliminating as part of her plan to balance next year's budget.
Board members told the teachers they would do as much as they could.
"It's not going to be easy. I'm not sure it can be done. I won't lie to you," Whaley said. "But if anything came home to me tonight … it's that we are a family and families take care of one another."
Earlier in the afternoon, board members indicated their willingness Tuesday to consider ways to cut $16-million from next year's budget and still give teachers their annual raises based on years of service.
But some of the alternatives could mean eliminating positions at the school level.
Whaley distributed a list of possible cuts that would allow the district to pay employees what she said she felt they deserve and need.
"I have heard from several teachers since then and many of them are in difficult circumstances and they need their step increases," which total just under $6-million, Whaley said near the end of a workshop that focused heavily on the administration's recommendations. "I personally feel responsible to those employees … I think there are other places we could look."
Her ideas included replacing one assistant principal at each secondary school and moving those employees to vacancies and not replacing teachers deemed "non-essential" as they resign or retire.
She also proposed delaying implementation of the district's Learning Focused Solutions program for a year, and creating a four-day week for middle and high schools.
Other board members said they were open to the discussion.
"Some of (her ideas) are interesting," said board member Allen Altman, who asked superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her administration to put dollar figures to them.
Fiorentino agreed, but cautioned the board that it should hear from employees before making any final decisions.
The budget needs to be essentially finished in time for the first public hearing July 29, although it can be changed until final adoption in September.
"Before we say we're cutting positions I think we need to go back and ask our fellow employees," Fiorentino said, suggesting a survey on how workers feel about step increases.
Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey focused on athletics, which Fiorentino listed for a 5 percent cut. Assistant superintendent Jim Davis explained that the $76,000 cut primarily would entail a reduction in the number of contests for several sports, including golf, cross country, swimming, track and weightlifting. No sports would be eliminated, although some coaching jobs would be combined.
Starkey called the proposal "creative," and suggested that the public should help keep sports afloat.
"I know a number of the schools have let booster clubs go by the wayside. I think at a time like this if we want meaningful athletics, the public should step up," she said.
Some board members, reacting to teacher complaints, inquired about the costs of implementing Learning Focused Strategies, a district-level staff training program that has cost the district more than $4.5-million.
Assistant superintendent Sandy Ramos said the administration has proposed a 25 percent cut in the coming year's training, to save about $140,000. But she recommended against fully putting off initiative, now which will be entering its fourth year.
The board and administration plan to continue the budget talks, knowing that several issues remain unsettled and that the current round of cuts is not likely to be the last.
"We've got some hard decisions to make, and it's not going to get easier," board vice chairman Frank Parker said, noting that the district will try to protect jobs but can't make any promises. "We need to keep our options open."
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.