Pinellas may cut 147 school district jobs, close schools

Pinellas school officials proposed a 2 percent pay cut for all district employees and raised the possibility that seven to 10 schools would be closed next year as the dire predictions of budget forecasters came true Tuesday.

In addition, the district proposed eliminating 147 jobs, reassigning 170 employees and canceling contracts with companies and public agencies that provide education services.

Among those who face job cuts: 35 assistant principals at middle and high schools, most of whom will return to teaching. Also gone is a $2.5-million plan to beef up the district's school nurse staff.

The canceled contracts would include a $3.5-million pact with a private company that operates Oak Park School, which tries to turn around students with behavior problems. The district would reorganize its system for dealing with such students, in part by moving some of its "alternative" programs to the Pinellas Park school.

With some exceptions, officials also imposed a general freeze on out-of-county travel and new hiring.

The cuts reach across all district levels. An estimated 170 of the employees who will be cut or reassigned come from district headquarters or regional offices.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox told a gathering of more than 200 grim-faced principals and administrators Tuesday that the district will try to reassign those whose jobs face elimination, but added: "I think all of us know it's going to be very hard to find an appropriate fit for a lot of people."

Of all the proposals, most singled out the 2 percent pay cut as the most painful. Wilcox let out a sigh as he displayed it on a screen in the principals meeting, which was webcast throughout the district. School Board member Carol Cook was watching on her home computer.

"I was literally getting tears in my eyes because I think it was finally becoming a reality, and that reality stinks," Cook said, alluding to the bad news that had been building for weeks as state legislators negotiated a budget.

Cook was part of a School Board contingent that recently traveled to Tallahassee to lobby the Legislature for more education money. "We felt like everything we were saying was falling on deaf ears," she said.

The state's $66.2-billion budget is the lowest in four years. It reflects a steep, steady decline in tax collections that have forced deep cuts in education and human services, the two areas of greatest spending. Legislators will debate the budget today and take a final vote before their scheduled adjournment Friday.

"It's a tough budget year. We've had to make lots of reductions," said Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, the House budget chairman. For that reason, Sansom said, lawmakers said they understood the decision to cut their $32,000 annual salaries by 5 percent.

The budget cuts public school operations across Florida by $332-million or 1.8 percent, but the size of the cut varies by county. Pinellas' reduction of $28-million, or 3.6 percent, is one of the largest, the result of declining enrollment. Fast-growing Pasco County, by contrast, gets $2.7-million more next year, an increase of six tenths of a percent.

In addition to the $28-million cut for the 2008-09 fiscal year, Pinellas officials also are trying to catch up with $15-million in state-mandated cuts from the current year.

Wilcox said he and the district's top administrators came up with $32-million as they scoured department budgets.

"We looked very hard," he said. "We finally ran up against that last $11-million, and there was only one way to do that."

That's where the salary cuts come in. About 2,000 employees, many of them maintenance and clerical workers, have eight-hour schedules. Their day would be cut to 7.5 hours, which is more the district norm, saving about $4-million. The district's remaining 14,000 employees — from top administrators and principals to teachers and cafeteria workers — would receive a 2 percent wage cut.

"That is the hardest piece for me to swallow," said School Board Chairwoman Nancy Bostock.

Wilcox emphasized that the proposed wage cuts would have to be negotiated with the district's employee unions.

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said he still held out hope for a small raise.

"We have to go look at some other solutions to this thing," he said Tuesday.

Asked where he would find the money, Moore suggested shifting revenue from a special property tax that goes to enhance teacher salaries and improve art, technology and music programs. Given the crisis, he argued, the money earmarked for art, technology and music could be used for salaries.

Several School Board members said Tuesday they doubted that could be done.

If the present seems bad, Wilcox said the future looks worse.

The district expects to cut an additional $20-million next year, he said. That's one reason discussions have turned to closing seven to 10 more schools — on top of the three that will close this year.

Officials said they tried to keep cuts from affecting students but were not entirely successful. Deputy superintendent Harry Brown cited the loss of assistant principals, who deal with discipline and teacher evaluations, but also develop relationships with kids.

"We have a lot of kids on the edge," Brown said. "The kids who most need to have contact with an adult will lose that."

But Julie Janssen, another deputy superintendent, said the cuts could be a chance to reinvent the district, which has a graduation rate of about 70 percent.

"I think it's a new opportunity to really, really look inwardly," she said. "Because if we're failing 30 percent of our kids, I'm not sure that our model is great. Sometimes, something has to happen that's so dramatic that you say, 'What are we going to do?'"

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.

2% Wage cuts
systemwide,
including administrators and teachers.
10Number of schools the district might considering closing before the 2009-10 school year.
$43MTotal trying to be saved in the 2008-09 school year.

Pinellas may cut 147 school district jobs, close schools 04/30/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2008 2:12pm]

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