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Pinellas School Board prepares to sift through budget cut ideas, students protest

About 30 former and present Pinellas students rallied outside district headquarters on Wednesday protesting the decision to end the 14 percent pay supplement given to magnet teachers.

Joseph Garnett Jr. | Times

About 30 former and present Pinellas students rallied outside district headquarters on Wednesday protesting the decision to end the 14 percent pay supplement given to magnet teachers.

Kill middle school sports. Limit lunch selections. Sell the district headquarters in Largo.

After paring $104 million in four years, the Pinellas School Board's budget-cutting options aren't getting any easier. But as the board begins to focus today on cutting $26 million from next year's budget, it won't lack for suggestions.

In 10 days, more than 120 suggestions flooded into a special website the district created to solicit budget-cutting ideas from the public. At least 200 others rolled into a second site just for district employees.

The ideas — some silly, some serious — join many the district has already put on the table, including reducing bus service, hiking employees' share of health insurance costs and imposing furloughs.

Today's workshop will mark the first time the board weighs in on specific proposals. And while members may offer preliminary thumbs up or down on some items, a lot can change as the board continues debate through the first budget hearing July 27 and beyond.

"The public needs to know that nothing is set in stone," said board chairwoman Janet Clark.

Tensions, though, are beginning to surface.

Dozens of sign-toting high school students rallied at district headquarters Wednesday to support 100 to 120 magnet teachers who were told last week they will no longer earn salary supplements for academic coaching.

The supplements — equal to 14 percent of base salaries — were given to teachers in the International Baccalaureate programs at St. Petersburg High and Palm Harbor University High, the Center for Advanced Technologies at Lakewood High and the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High. The potential savings: about $700,000.

"A lot of teachers are thinking about retiring early. It hurts," said one of the protesting students, Fedner Lauture, 17, a junior in the IB program at St. Petersburg High. "Being an academic coach isn't a trifling thing. They help us a lot."

He and other students noted the supplements had caused a rift between magnet and traditional teachers. After news of the cuts broke last week, "Some traditional teachers were high-fiving," Lauture said.

Several students at the demonstration said their teachers deserve more because they work harder. "I had regular Lakewood teachers. Some of them were really great," said Victoria Joyal, a 2009 Lakewood High graduate. But overall, "there was no comparison."

Joyal, now a computer engineering major at the University of Florida, drove from Gainesville to be in the demonstration.

"My CAT teachers helped me my entire way through school," she said. "I don't think they should be deprived of their pay. And I don't think students should be deprived of their services."

It's not clear if the cuts are a sure thing. The Pinellas teachers union said the supplements are part of the district contract and changes must be negotiated. Board member Peggy O'Shea, who said the supplements raise fairness issues, also said the decision is not a done deal.

"Do we have to do this? Can we do a partial? We haven't even discussed that," she said. "If we can avoid it, I'd love to."

Other budget-cutting ideas are generating debate, too. By Wednesday night's deadline for suggestions, the district's website for the public drew more than 400 reply comments; the staff site, more than 600.

Among the ideas that spawned the strongest reactions: nixing the district's Blackberry devices. Closing all elementary and middle schools for the summer (and concentrating summer services in a few high schools). And putting middle and high school students on the same buses.

"This would be a painful cut but it seems obvious," one person wrote about cutting middle school sports. "If the choice is libraries or a track team, you have to side with the libraries for now."

A common thread through many suggestions: cutting administrative fat.

Pinellas is among the most top-heavy big districts in Florida, but central administration is a small fraction of its $1.4 billion budget. Last fall, for example, the district employed 87 non-school-based administrators making more than $70,000 a year. The value of their combined salaries: $8 million.

"Are we going to get $26 million out of the administration building?" O'Shea said "I don't think so."

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

Initial cut proposals expected today

During a Pinellas School Board workshop today, superintendent Julie Janssen and her finance team are scheduled to present initial proposals for cuts to the 2010-2011 budget. The board will meet in the conference hall of the administration building, 301 4th Street SW, Largo. The budget update is scheduled for 9:05-11 a.m.

Wednesday was the deadline for the public to submit suggestions to a special district website soliciting budget-cutting ideas. Among them:

• Move to a four-day school week.

• Privatize cafeterias.

• Cut the salaries of employees making more than $100,000 by 10 percent.

• Allow businesses to advertise on school buses.

• Cut all employee travel costs.

Pinellas School Board prepares to sift through budget cut ideas, students protest 05/20/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 20, 2010 12:55am]

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