Pinellas School Board to vote on budget cuts with 400 jobs on the line

When the Pinellas County School Board votes tonight on the biggest budget cuts in six straight years of cuts, 400 jobs will be on the line, as well as furloughs for 17,000 employees and, perhaps, a goodbye for Sara Smith.

A library information specialist at high-poverty Gulfport Elementary, Smith, 55, is part of a group that will be especially hard hit if the cuts are approved.

Like her peers, she's far more than a librarian. She's also the technology coordinator. She runs the school website. She dashes to help when e-mail goes down.

But at its core, her job is still teaching kids to be lifelong learners. This week, she showed kids how to use Google Sky to spy constellations, then switched to a spectacular shot, from a Japanese spacecraft, of the Earth rising over the moon.

Wiggling stopped. Wows commenced.

"The kids are tough, but they're good with me," Smith said. "I'll miss them. But what can I do?"

• • •

The district is in a $55 million hole. It has to be filled, and when 85 percent of an $850 million operating budget is salaries and benefits, people have to go.

That doesn't make cutting them any easier. A big crowd is expected tonight as the School Board considers a list of cuts that includes 227 teachers, guidance counselors, library information specialists and other instructional staff. It also includes 166 clerks, secretaries, teaching assistants and other support workers.

After years of cuts, "you can't not touch the classroom at some point," said deputy superintendent Jim Madden.

The district's predicament can't be fully understood without talking about what came before, and what lies ahead. It has sliced $118 million over the last five years. It's already looking at $20 million more for 2012-13.

"I think for the most part it's probably going to go as recommended," board member Janet Clark said of the vote. "We don't have a lot of things … to choose from."

It's unclear how many of the 400 positions are occupied. District officials say they don't know. It's also unclear how many employees will be laid off.

The district loses about 1,000 employees every year through attrition, including 500 teachers. The hope? That most if not all of the displaced employees will land jobs in those slots.

Smith has 20 years' experience as a librarian, half of that in schools. She moved from North Carolina to Pinellas four years ago to be closer to her parents. Her brief time in the district means — because of seniority rules — that the odds are slimmer she'll be able to keep her job if the board follows a recommendation from superintendent Julie Janssen to cut elementary school librarians by half.

Smith isn't sure what options might be available to her. But she worried about moving to a position she's less qualified for.

"I'm good at being a librarian," she said. "It'd be too bad to have to do something else and be second-rate at it."

• • •

The proposed cuts aren't limited to personnel. The district hopes to gain $2 million by selling vacant land; $3 million by better managing heating and cooling; $5 million by shifting more health insurance costs to employees. It expects to save $850,000 on busing. It will cut $1 million by closing Harris Tips, a school in St. Petersburg for teen parents.

Associate superintendent Bill Lawrence said the school is staffed for 72 middle and high school students, but enrollment is down to 32.

Even if the School Board approves all the cuts on the table, some still have to be negotiated with the employee unions. Union leaders are not satisfied that the district cut deep enough into administration, or seriously considered ideas that surfaced at public forums, like cutting athletics.

"I think they should re-look at some of the suggestions that were made," said Kim Black, president of the teachers union.

Board members have expressed reservations about cutting librarians. Meanwhile, a proposal to save busing to Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School — but only if school start times are moved from 7:20 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. — has drawn howls from parents.

Whatever individual cuts board members balk at, though, could make the collective cuts worse.

Furloughs, $7.7 million worth, are already built into the recommended cuts. And if the board saves a program here, or a group of employees there, the number of unpaid leave days is likely to rise for everybody else.

• • •

Smith said she appreciates the fix the district is in. She said she wouldn't be able to decide who's most important. But she still worries about the impact.

"I hate to think what's going to happen at my school next year if I'm not there," she said. "Somebody else is going to have to step up."

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

Proposed budget cuts

Here are some examples of the proposed cuts and savings the Pinellas County School Board will vote on tonight: The School Board must still approve the 2011-12 budget after two public hearings on July 26 and Sept. 13.

Health insurance: $5 million; employee share of costs rises from 20 to 25 percent

Elementary schools: $4.96 million; includes elimination of about 70 data management technicians, 44 teaching assistants for at-risk students, 37 media specialists, about five ESOL teachers and 11 or 12 art and music teachers

Middle schools: $3.58 million; includes elimination of about 20 guidance counselors and about 20 electives teachers

High schools: $3.96 million; includes elimination of about 32 electives teachers, 19 or 20 attendance progress assistants, and 3 or 4 assistant principals; another 20 combined guidance counselors and clerks will be eliminated

Special education centers: $1 million; elimination of 21 positions

Curriculum and instruction: $9.38 million; includes elimination of about 40 special education teachers, about 10 reading coaches, about 10 math/science coaches and the closing of the Harris Tips school for teen parents

Human resources: $924,000; elimination of 19 positions

Budget and finance: $162,000; elimination of six positions

Unpaid leave: $7.67 million; includes three days for 10-month teachers and seven days for 12-month administrators

Pinellas School Board to vote on budget cuts with 400 jobs on the line 05/25/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 26, 2011 1:01am]

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