Pinellas school board spares librarians, counselors and assistants

The Pinellas County School Board voted early this morning to cut $50 million from next year's budget, but decided at the last minute to save three groups of workers: elementary school librarians, middle school guidance counselors and teaching assistants for a program that works with at-risk students.

The board also directed Superintendent Julie Janssen to keep scouring for savings to make up the $4.7 million it will cost not to cut those workers — and to add more furlough days to the district's other workers if the money can't be found.

"I hope you can find the money," board member Linda Lerner told the district's chief financial officer shortly before the final set of votes. "I think the board is taking a chance here."

"I'm not willing to say let's do more furlough days," said board member Janet Clark. "There might be another stone that hasn't been turned over."

In previous meetings, a majority of board members indicated it was on board with — or at least did not object to — most of Janssen's plan to cut $55 million. But the majorities that backed away from some of those recommendations this morning were surprisingly strong.

The board voted 6-1 not to cut 37 library information specialists, with member Robin Wikle voting against.

It voted 5-2 not to cut 44 teaching assistants with the STARS program, with Wikle and board chair Carol Cook voting against.

It voted 5-2 not to cut 20 middle school guidance counselors, with Wikle and Cook again voting against.

Then it voted 7-0 to direct Janssen to look for more money and 7-0 to support the rest of the cuts.

Members took turns explaining why some of the targeted employees shouldn't lose their jobs.

"It is a severe cut," member Peggy O'Shea said about the library information specialists. "These are services aimed directly at our students."

"These are the (teaching assistants) who are helping our most needy youngsters," member Lew Williams said of the STARS workers. "Let's … find another way."

Janssen said she was surprised by the votes.

Asked how hard it would be to find $4.7 million in cuts in other places, she said: "It's going to be tough. Very difficult. We've literally been walking the floors ... talking to department heads to truly look again at everything they're doing.

"Do I have a pit in my stomach? Yeah."

The board began debating the $55 million in budget cuts, including the elimination of 400 jobs and furloughs for 17,000 employees, just after 11 p.m. Thursday. The debate began after more than 50 speakers, over the course of 21/2 hours, told them no, no, no.

"It is the children who will suffer, as they will not get the attention they need," said Christine Everett, a guidance counselor at Palm Harbor Middle School. "Please keep trying to save the middle school counselors, if not for us then for the students."

The board's vote, before an overflow crowd of 170, was expected after weeks of mounting anxiety about the district's budget deficit, prompted by declining enrollment and shrinking state funding.

After cutting $118 million over the past five years, and with 85 percent of the budget coming from salaries and benefits, there hasn't been a lot of wiggle room.

"Going forward, it will not be business as usual in Pinellas County schools," Janssen said about 8 p.m., before reading her recommended list of cuts, line by line.

The speakers tried.

They quoted Shakespeare. Read letters from parents. Cited their FCAT scores. They argued that the targeted jobs were too valuable. That cutting employees hurts kids. That the district didn't consider enough alternatives. Cut athletics, they said. Slash busing. Burn more administrative fat.

"The district is walking the same worn path of cutting benefits and salaries," said Gibbs High teacher Dara Vance. "Go back to the budget with your eyes not focused on furloughs."

Many speakers made pitches to save specific groups of workers.

For 160 clerks and typists and other support workers: "We cannot afford furloughs," said Nelly Henjes, president of the support workers union. "We're not going to have money to bring to our table and feed our kids."

For 44 teaching assistants with an at-risk program called STARS: "If it wasn't for the STARS (employees), I wouldn't have passed," said Viktourea Hamill, 17, a sophomore at Largo High. "Now I'm an AP student. I get all A's in honors classes."

Personnel isn't the only thing on the table. So is $5 million in increased health insurance costs; $1 million from closing a school for teen parents; $2 million from selling vacant land; and $850,000 in busing.

In earlier meetings, the board seemed to agree on the vast majority of proposed cuts. But a few gave them pause, including changing the bell times at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School to save on busing costs.

The board debated the Thurgood Marshall proposal for nearly an hour. In recent days, hundreds of angry parents flooded board members with e-mails, saying the new start time — 9:30 a.m., up from 7:20 a.m. — would wreak havoc.

But in the end, the board voted 5-2 to change the times, with members Terry Krassner and Lew Williams voting no.

There is yet more anxiety ahead.

About 1,000 district jobs open each year through retirements and other normal attrition. And in coming weeks, employees will compete for them in a high-stakes game of musical chairs. Many employees whose positions are cut will vie for those jobs. Some 1,100 first- and second-year teachers on annual contracts are also in the mix.

Times correspondent Sylvia Lim contributed to this report.

Pinellas school board spares librarians, counselors and assistants 05/26/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 27, 2011 11:54am]

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