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Pinellas School Board hunts for $40M

LARGO — The Pinellas School Board decided Tuesday to quickly address a projected $40-million budget shortfall for next year by closing schools, reorganizing the district's fundamental middle schools and possibly revoking bus service for scores of students.

All told, the moves would affect thousands of families who would be forced to change schools or provide their own transportation to school starting in August.

"If the budget is this bad this year and it isn't getting much better in the next three to five years, then we've got to look at a different way of doing things," said the board's new chairwoman, Peggy O'Shea.

The board decided in a workshop to:

• Close Coachman Fundamental Middle School in Clearwater and Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg, and move both programs to different schools in time for the 2009-10 academic year.

• Strongly consider reversing a decision last year to provide bus service for students who opted to remain in their existing schools rather than move to their new zone schools. The move could save $2.3-million to $7-million, depending on how many students the board decides to impact.

• Consider closing five elementary schools: Gulf Beaches, Kings Highway, North Ward, Palm Harbor and Rio Vista. The estimated savings would be $6.9-million.

Board members said they needed more information before deciding the fate of the elementaries. But superintendent Julie Janssen said she saw no way to avoid closing all five, given the severity of the budget crisis.

"I don't see how we cannot," she said.

Tuesday's events set up a pivotal workshop Dec. 2, when the board expects to decide on the elementary closings and the question of revoking bus service.

In a related matter, chief budget officer Lanse Johansen recommended that the board forgo raises this year for the district's 15,000 employees. District officials had been talking to the teachers union about a small raise in January.

But Johansen said that would boost next year's budget shortfall from $39-million to $52.5-million. He also recommended salary cuts instead of layoffs next year, saying the district shouldn't be "putting people on the street."

Board member Janet Clark countered: "I'm not ready to talk about salary reductions before we have gone through everything with a fine-tooth comb."

But Johansen responded that, with 85 percent of the district's operating budget tied to personnel, the choice would come down to layoffs or pay cuts.

The union says there is enough money in reserves for a small raise this year. But the district says its reserves already are dangerously low.

Not all the news Tuesday was so grim. The board okayed a proposal to add magnet programs for gifted students at three middle schools: Dunedin, Morgan Fitzgerald and Thurgood Marshall Fundamental.

The programs would offer students a full complement of gifted classes in contrast to the more limited gifted offerings now available at most middle schools. They would start in August with about 125 sixth-graders at each school and be phased into all middle school grades over the following two years.

By adding the programs, the district saves money on busing because magnet students receive less expensive arterial bus service, which is less convenient.

Also on the plus side for many families, the moves involving Southside and Coachman middle schools would increase the number of fundamental middle school seats by about 700.

The Southside program would move to Madeira Beach Middle School and the Coachman program to Kennedy Middle in Clearwater.

Southside students who do not want to move to Madeira would be given the option of moving to nearby Thurgood Marshall Fundamental in St. Petersburg.

On the down side, the move will mean disruption for the Southside and Coachman families, and for students at Kennedy and Madeira who will be reassigned if they do not sign onto the fundamental concept.

Pinellas School Board hunts for $40M 11/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 25, 2008 3:50pm]
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