Pinellas School board moves toward difficult budget cuts

The Pinellas County School Board took a big step toward $60 million in targeted budget cuts Monday. But it left crucial decisions affecting more than 70 guidance counselors and media specialists — and the number of unpaid leave days for thousands of other employees — up in the air.

The lack of consensus on those jobs sets the stage for a dramatic vote at next week's board meeting, when the cuts will be finalized.

Board members wrestled with the job cuts because "they're not buses and engines and pieces of paper. They're actual people that have relationships with kids," said board member Janet Clark. "There's a face on it."

All in all, the board signaled it's willing to okay most of the cuts proposed by superintendent Julie Janssen. But members were also aware of the brutal calculus at play behind each cut they can't stomach.

Unpaid leave is the filler that will be used to plug whatever gap remains between the cuts they approve and the $60 million they're aiming for. A spreadsheet handed out at the beginning of Monday's meeting showed $48.2 million in projected cuts — leaving 4.51 days of unpaid leave per employee, on average, to meet the target.

By the end of the meeting, the identified cuts appeared to be about $42 million.

"Bottom line is, it's going to be how we feel about furlough days vs. specific positions," said board member Terry Krassner.

Though no votes were taken, a majority of board members agreed to eliminate more than 300 jobs, including 44 teaching assistants for an elementary school program that helps at-risk students. (It's unclear how many of the other positions are vacant, or how many of those cut may be able to land other vacant positions.)

The board also indicated it's okay with shifting 25 percent of health care costs to employees, up from 20 percent this year.

Members were clearly pained by many cuts, which have been prompted by declining student enrollment and shrinking state funds. But the plan for 37 elementary school guidance counselors and 37 media specialists hurt the most.

Currently, every elementary school has one of each. Janssen recommended cutting them by half. The savings: $4.8 million.

Cutting counselors "is not a good idea," said board member Linda Lerner. "I have no new idea for it, but I'd rather see keeping guidance counselors" and squeezing savings by putting some administrators on shorter contracts.

Krassner pointed to a 60 Minutes clip about homeless students that Janssen showed at the start of the workshop.

"You see this little clip and in the same breath we're not going to provide for guidance counselors?" she said. "The interaction they have with our students is huge."

A media specialist at each middle school was also on the chopping block. But Janssen said those jobs will be saved by using a portion of the district's "referendum dollars" from a property tax hike voters approved in 2004 and again in 2008.

In a related development, a majority of the board seemed okay with a compromise that Janssen floated regarding busing at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School and Osceola Fundamental High School.

Janssen initially proposed eliminating busing to those schools, for a savings of about $1.8 million. But some board members worried about the impact on low-income students, and a district survey of parents that went out over the weekend indicated, according to Janssen, that the move would create a hardship for many.

Janssen said the district could keep busing at both schools if it changed Thurgood's current start time of 7:20 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., the start time recommended for other district middle schools next year.

Because of schedule changes at four high schools under state oversight, the district was expecting to increase bus service and cost next year. But changing Thurgood's schedule allows it to recoup some of the loss.

"There has to be give and take," Janssen said.

She also said the district will consider ending busing at those two schools for the 2012-13 school year.

Board members put other ideas for cuts on the table, including the elimination of driver's education courses, a closer look at the cost for campus police and bringing the offices for regional superintendents to district headquarters in Largo. But it appears those ideas will get a closer look for the 2012-13 budget, which already has a projected deficit of $7 million to $20 million.

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

Pinellas School board moves toward difficult budget cuts 05/16/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 17, 2011 12:27am]

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