The Pinellas School Board saw progress on two major fronts Tuesday, pushing ahead with a nationwide superintendent search and hearing from finance officials that it might be possible to reduce or eliminate proposed pay cuts for all district employees.
At a workshop, the board informally decided on a four-month search to replace outgoing superintendent Clayton Wilcox. The district's new top executive will be offered a salary of between $200,000 and $240,000 and an initial contract of three years.
Wilcox's salary this year is $204,000.
The board plans to select five finalists, invite them for a late-August visit that would include school tours and make a selection by late September. The process calls for public input.
Also Tuesday, board members quickly agreed on a salary increase for deputy superintendent Julie Janssen, who will assume a larger role as interim superintendent after Wilcox leaves June 2 for a private sector job. Janssen's salary will rise from $131,000 to $185,000. A 4-3 board majority appears inclined to allow Janssen to apply for the permanent job.
The board will take formal votes Tuesday on Janssen's appointment, her salary and other matters related to Wilcox's departure, including hiring a search consultant.
The consultant will be Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, who has conducted about 70 superintendent searches.
"When you get to your top five (finalists), every one of them can run your school system," Blanton told the board. He also told them it was likely that allowing the interim superintendent to apply for the permanent job would likely reduce the pool of candidates because many will think the interim has an advantage.
Like the other 16,000 employees in the district, Janssen stands to take a pay cut if one is approved by the board.
Wilcox last week proposed a 2 percent pay cut for about 14,000 employees, most of them teachers. The remaining 2,000 employees — bus drivers, maintenance workers, cafeteria staffers and office employees — were to have their hours reduced by 30 minutes a day, resulting in a 6.25 percent pay cut.
But Tuesday brought news that the new worst-case scenario is an across-the-board 1.5 percent pay cut for all 16,000 district employees.
What changed? A call by board members to have all employees share the pain equally.
In addition, Wilcox and his finance staff now recommend cutting deeper into the district's reserves by $4.8-million. They also said they learned that the system's property and casualty insurance will cost $1.1-million less than anticipated. Together, those developments generate another $6-million that could be spent on salaries.
Put another way, last week's $43-million budget deficit now stands at about $37-million.
The downside: Lanse Johansen, the district's chief business officer, said cutting into reserves would leave the district with a contingency fund of about $14-million, or 1.5 percent of the operating budget — a figure he described as perilously low. "That's the lowest I can recommend," Johansen told the board.
Officials also proposed ways to make the pay cut even smaller or eliminate it by increasing health insurance premiums paid by employees.
The district faces an $11-million increase in insurance premiums for 2008-09. The current budget proposes that the district shoulder the entire increase as it has in the past and not pass it on to employees.
But what if the district passed on a portion of the premium increase in exchange for making the pay cut less severe? Or what if employees shouldered the entire premium increase in exchange for a freeze in pay?
The board received a worksheet showing how increasing health premiums would affect different employees.
One example: If the district froze pay at this year's levels, an employee making $40,000 a year who pays insurance premiums for herself only would shoulder an increase in premiums of $440 a year.
On the other hand, the same employee would lose $600 in salary if the district cut pay by 1.5 percent and did not pass on the insurance increase to employees.
Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said the union has not agreed to such a tradeoff.
"We do need to continue this discussion, and we do need to look at what benefits the majority of employees," she said.
"We just ask the employees to hang with us and to remain calm and focus on the remainder of this year and let us work on the bargaining process."
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8923.