Pinellas, Hillsborough school districts gasp at budget misery

Months of anxiety over school budget cuts flared to new levels Thursday on both sides of Tampa Bay.

In Pinellas, more than 1,000 fledgling teachers found out they're in employment limbo. In Hillsborough, officials predicted ballooning class sizes.

The prompt: Legislative budget cuts to education — already at historic proportions — that in recent days have become even worse than expected.

"We are going broke trying to live off my low salary," said Kathleen Casper, a teacher at Ridgecrest Elementary in Largo who moved from Washington state a few years ago. "Now that I'm hearing I will likely not even get a new contract, this is a good time to leave."

In Pinellas, the school district announced it will not renew the annual contracts of 1,100 teachers, most of them in their first or second year of teaching.

District officials said they expect to hire most of them back by the end of June. But who returns and where will depend on what slots are available, and that has yet to be determined.

"We want to give assurance to our teachers that we do indeed want them back and we will do everything in our powers to make this a seamless transition," Ron Ciranna, the assistant superintendent for human resources, wrote in an e-mail. "Believe me, no one wants to do this — however, the Legislature has created a perfect storm and we have to deal with this the best we can."

In Hillsborough, district officials reacted to news that their projected budget gap may grow from $3.8 million to $28.8 million.

Finance director Gretchen Saunders said she was waiting for the state to calculate retirement costs, which could reduce the gap.

But school board members and union officials held out little hope that Gov. Rick Scott would ride to the rescue. They said existing programs would suffer as a result.

"It's just not possible to maintain the kind of quality we have now with those cuts," Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough teachers union, said at a midday news conference.

Hillsborough has so far ruled out teacher layoffs or furloughs. But Clements said non-core classes will get bigger and administrators might get additional duties — if they're lucky.

"Every person who is not in the classroom is in jeopardy of not keeping their job," she said.

Hillsborough PTA president Melissa Erickson said parent volunteers, too, were being stretched to the breaking point.

"When we started cutting personnel from school systems, volunteers stepped up and said, 'Okay, we'll start coming in, we'll do lunch duty, we'll do bus duty,' " she said. "We cannot do any more. We cannot volunteer to be teachers."

In Pinellas, district officials have been aiming to cut $60 million, and were already considering furloughs and the elimination of 400 jobs. But the most recent legislative figures show the hole deepening to $66 million.

Under its contract with the teachers union, the district must tell staff about non-renewals four weeks before their last work day of the school year. Teachers will receive notice by May 12. Their contracts expire June 10.

Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, said the move was extraordinary but not surprising. Some Florida districts have taken similar actions in recent years. "It's unfortunately a practice that's often used when we have uncertain times like we have now," he said.

The district has about 8,000 teachers total. The rookies make $37,013 a year.

Ciranna, who broke the news at a principals meeting Thursday morning, said principals were instructed to tell their staffs Thursday and today. But many teachers found out from a story on tampabay.com.

"We're all concerned about it," said Shelley Forgas, 25, a second-year speech pathologist at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg. "As long as you do your work and do your best and give your 150 percent to your kids every day, the administration should be asking you back, we hope."

"But with budget cuts, you never know."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas, Hillsborough school districts gasp at budget misery 05/05/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 6, 2011 1:50pm]

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