Pinellas business leaders are gearing up to offer the school district advice on how it might save money. But not everyone is looking forward to the suggestions.
Beginning this month, the Pinellas Education Foundation plans to convene groups of business folks, district officials, teachers and others to brainstorm ideas for redirecting more of the school system's $1.25 billion budget into classrooms. It hopes recommendations can be sent to the School Board by next spring, when budget talks for the 2012-13 school year start.
"We're hopeful of making significant savings in efficiencies," said foundation chairman Craig Sher, who pitched the idea to former superintendent Julie Janssen in the spring. "I'm not going to estimate a number … but hopefully it's in the many millions of dollars."
Established in 1986, the foundation has deep roots in the business community. It has raised more than $95 million for schools. On occasion, it has taken a more active role on some initiatives, such as a push for career and technical education.
Not everyone is digging its latest effort.
"I'm not really comfortable with it," said board member Janet Clark, who has been at odds with the foundation in the past.
Among other concerns, Clark noted the district is undergoing a transition in leadership. Janssen's last day was Friday, and interim superintendent John A. Stewart's first school day is Tuesday.
Clark also said she didn't think the group could scour enough savings to justify the extensive staff time that might be required to hear and vet whatever proposals surface.
"There haven't been a heck of a lot of things that haven't been thought of before," she said.
The foundation's idea hit a snag at a board workshop Tuesday.
Board attorney Jim Robinson advised members not to have one-on-one meetings with the foundation on the matter — which the foundation was planning to do — given concerns about the Sunshine Law and the project's potential sweep. When board member Peggy O'Shea noted that members meet individually with other groups, Robinson said there's a difference here.
"It's the context," he said. "With this kind of issue, this is huge. What they want to do is make massive changes operationally in any number of departments throughout the district. And so they're going to meet individually with board members and essentially get buy-in."
In the end, the board directed chairwoman Carol Cook to ask the foundation to make a presentation at a board workshop.
Foundation president Terry Boehm said that probably wouldn't be a problem. But he said it was "absurd" that board members could not meet with foundation officials individually.
"This is strange," he said. "There must be a new definition of government in the sunshine."
The foundation's plan comes as the district has cut $170 million from its budget in the past six years. Another $27 million is already projected to be cut for 2012-13.
Given that backdrop, Sher said he wants to "add value to the district, with the sole goal of freeing up money to go back into the classroom."
"We're not here to save money and not use it," he said.
The foundation plans to focus on six broad areas: energy, transportation, construction, repairs and maintenance, health and benefits, and purchasing. A draft report about the project, prepared by a foundation-hired consultant and released recently, lists 34 more specific items it says are ripe for discussion.
Some have been discussed before. Some haven't.
Among them: Having administrators teach one or two class periods. Finding ways to get more business experience into the leadership teams at middle and high schools. And outsourcing some district work to private companies, such as maintenance.
Sher said a business would certainly consider the last item. But the union that represents the district's blue-collar workers didn't like the sound of it.
"As far as I know, no one's been contacted here," said Daniel Rubin, communications director for SEIU Florida, which represents about 2,500 school district workers in Pinellas, including about 300 in maintenance. "We've not been told of any possible outsourcing, and obviously we vehemently oppose any outsourcing or shedding of jobs."
Rubin said the union proposed a similar budget-cutting effort to the administration, with employees identifying potential savings. But it has not heard back.
Sher's response: "A lot of times you're not here to win a popularity contest. We view ourselves … as the union for the children. And we're going to get more money for children in the classroom."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.