Pinellas school employees could face pay cuts of up to 10 percent this fall in response to a district budget shortfall that could grow to more than $100 million.
Such drastic action may be necessary, officials said Tuesday, despite $47.8 million in cuts already identified. Those reductions include more than $8 million in transportation costs and $6.2 million gained by closing six elementary schools and merging four middle schools.
But those cuts don't come close to what will be needed to balance next year's budget, superintendent Julie Janssen told School Board members gathered for a regularly scheduled workshop.
"We can't get where we need to get by doing what we've been doing, nibbling around the edges and thinking we're going to get the big reductions we need," Janssen said. "The bottom line is we have to look at things differently over the next few years."
The superintendent's comments followed a presentation from two members of the district's budget office, who offered three models of what Pinellas could be facing, depending on its share of the state budget shortfall.
Based on original projections of a $68.9 million funding loss, the district would be left with a $21 million gap after applying the $47.8 million in identified reductions. That would necessitate an across-the-board salary cut of 3.5 percent.
If the district is looking at a $90.6 million loss, a figure based on more recent projections, the pay reduction would have to be slightly more than 7 percent to make up the difference.
And in a worst-case scenario, the one that officials say follows the state's newest projection of an additional 15 percent reduction for next year, the district would be looking at a $107 million shortfall, calling for a 10 percent pay cut.
"Of course I'd like to find other places to cut," said Doug Forth, an assistant superintendent in charge of budgeting. "But I think we've all come to the realization that there just isn't any more we can squeeze out of the budget."
School Board member Janet Clark objected, insisting that there are other places to cut.
"We have staff developers we could put back in the classroom," Clark said. "And if we got rid of a layer of administrators, I don't think that would be a bad thing."
Board member Linda Lerner said that while she believes some salary cuts will be necessary, an across-the-board cut would "impact employees significantly and dramatically."
But the harshest critic by far was teachers union president Kim Black, who pledged that union members would "continue to fight against all attempts to balance the budget on the teachers' backs."
Meanwhile, School Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea cautioned that talk of pay reductions is preliminary.
"This is just a first-day discussion," O'Shea said, adding that a more in-depth conversation will occur in two weeks at the board retreat. "There's still a lot of information we'll ask for."
Forth, the budget officer, acknowledged that the picture could change once the district gets word on how much it might receive as a result of the $789 billion stimulus package that President Obama signed Tuesday. The package is expected to deliver more than $3 billion to the state's K-12 public schools over two years, including hundreds of millions of dollars that could alleviate shortfalls in district budgets next year.
But if Pinellas decides to move forward on the pay reductions, it won't be alone.
In December, the Manatee School Board declared a financial emergency, imposing a 1 percent pay cut for teachers to be achieved by eliminating two workdays. And this week, Hernando County school officials discussed a 5 percent pay cut as a means of eliminating $30 million from the district's budget.
Donna Winchester can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8413.