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Pinellas school board tentatively agrees to $11 million in cuts

Parents of Pinellas County middle school students might get their wish for an earlier start time this fall.

But not by much.

As part of an effort to make at least $11 million in budget cuts, Pinellas County school officials are discussing a new bell and busing schedule that would have middle schools starting class 10 to 15 minutes earlier at 9:20 a.m.

And elementary schools would open at three separate times: 7:30, 8:35 and 9:20 a.m., depending on the school. Right now, the latest the youngest pupils start is 8: 35.

High school students, meanwhile, would continue their controversial 7:05 a.m. start time.

The plan, which superintendent Julie Janssen and her staff presented to the School Board on Tuesday during a workshop, could save 50 bus routes and about $2.25 million without discontinuing transportation for anyone who is eligible now.

The proposal was among those the board signaled its approval for — but did not vote on — as the district tries to cut $26 million to balance next year's budget. The wide range of nips and tucks also included a slice to the bus system and the elimination of a $1.7 million program that helps struggling readers.

"Some of it's very, very painful," Janssen said about a list of options presented to the board. "But I don't know how else to get to a balanced budget."

An additional $15 million will be targeted in coming weeks as the board moves to identify the full suite of cuts by the end of the month, in time for the first of two public hearings on the budget July 27. The board will discuss budget cuts again at another workshop on Tuesday.

The cuts are prompted by declining enrollment and continued reductions in state education spending. The district has cut $104 million over the past four years and is absorbing another $14 million to meet state class-size mandates by shifting academic coaches and other employees back into classrooms.

Even then, the prospect of furloughs — deemed a last resort — still looms.

Among the cuts that now appear likely:

• Tweaking bus routes. Beyond the cost-saving changes in the bell schedule, bus stops for high school students who attend magnet programs, career centers or other out-of-zone schools could be reassigned to the nearest school campus instead of, say, in front of a convenience store. Potential savings: $2 million to $3 million.

• Renegotiating district health care costs. That could include the district dropping its share of employee costs from 82 percent to 80 percent. Potential savings: $2.3 million.

• Eliminating the Literacy Success program. That helps struggling readers in schools that do not qualify for federal money aimed at low-income students. Potential savings: $1.7 million.

• Reducing the extended learning program. That's also used to help struggling students by giving them more time on tasks in a variety of subjects. Potential savings: $1 million.

• Nixing "school improvement money." Those are small pots given to each school and used for things like teacher professional development. Potential saving: $1.2 million.

• Reducing each school's discretionary budget. That's often used for items like copy paper and classroom supplies. The board is looking at a 15 percent cut. Potential savings: $1.5 million.

District staff listed ways they will try to minimize some cuts. But board members still worried about the impact.

"Are we going to see the struggling students left back in third grade?" said board member Linda Lerner. "That's the reality."

The board said it needed more information before it could decide on two other potential cuts: reducing "duty days" for guidance counselors, social workers and other employees, and replacing night foremen with lower-paid plant operators through attrition. The former could save $500,000; the latter, from $1 million to $5 million over several years.

The board scrapped one option: reducing transportation to middle and high school athletic events. That could have saved $500,000, but Janssen said it raised equity issues.

The board gave no indication on where it was headed on a proposal to cut the hefty salary supplements given to about 90 teachers in four marquee magnet programs.

That proposal, floated by Janssen last month, would save about $700,000. But it has ignited an angry backlash from the magnet teachers — and an ugly row between them and teachers who do not receive large supplements.

Janssen told the board that she plans to meet with the magnet teachers soon, though a date has not been set.

"It needs to be real clear that that is not part of the budget discussion right now," board member Carol Cook told her.

Ron Matus can be reached at or (727) 893-8873.

.Fast facts

In other action …

Life Skills charter school: The board left little doubt it plans to deny a charter renewal for Life Skills, a beloved but academically troubled charter high school in St. Petersburg. Board members had given the school, marred by low graduation rates and FCAT scores, more than two months to come up with a turnaround plan. But they found lacking a revised plan that was presented on Tuesday. "I don't see something that says, 'Wow, they're really going to turn this around,' " board member Peggy O'Shea said. The board is scheduled to vote on the charter extension Tuesday.

School land: The board gave district leaders the go-ahead to negotiate the sale of a 3-acre parcel of land at Holt Avenue and Palmetto Street in Clearwater to the Homeless Emergency Project, which already has facilities nearby and would like to build more housing for veterans and women and children. The district has received two appraisals for the property: $281,000 and $558,000. HEP has offered $281,000, but the district is seeking a higher price.

Pinellas school board tentatively agrees to $11 million in cuts 06/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 12:29am]
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