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Pinellas Education Foundation seeks ideas to steer money to classrooms

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 matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

"I was unaware, as were some of you, of the proposed partnership with the Foundation to discuss and report the possible cost saving and/or revenue measures 'for consideration now and in the future...' No doubt you welcome the input and support of the business community and your long-standing partners at the Foundation. My advice to you is that all Board member discussions with Foundation representatives regarding this initiative occur in the context of a duly noticed workshop setting, and not in individual Board member meetings. It is the entire decision-making process, the how and why officials decide to act, which the Sunshine Law is intended to cover...

Jim Robinson, Pinellas School Board attorney, in an e-mail Tuesday to the School Board

"In response to Mr. Robinson's concern ... we would like to offer the following:

During our Foundation board retreat this past May, which was attended by Mr. Robinson and five of the school board members, the discussion to hire a consultant by the Foundation to coordinate the efforts of the foundation and community members to suggest cost saving measures in the district was reported and met with zero resistance. ... We have every right — as taxpayers, members of the community, parents and business leaders — to have discussions with individual members of the Board. ... This project needs to be objective and independent so having workshops during the initial input phase could jeopardize the accuracy and objectivity of the process. ... When we complete the study, to alleviate Mr. Robinson's concern for the Sunshine law, we will error on the side of full disclosure and be very public with the report. We are more than happy to meet with the entire school board if they desire. But if there are board members who would like to discuss the process, they should keep their appointments we scheduled as allowed by the law ..."

Craig Sher, Pinellas Education Foundation chairman,

in an e-mail Wednesday to the School Board

Source: Pinellas County School District, edited for length

Pinellas Education Foundation seeks ideas to steer money to classrooms 09/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 2, 2011 1:06pm]

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