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Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen says budget cut proposals will affect students

After weeks of anticipation, the scope of $60 million in budget cuts for Pinellas schools quickly came into focus Tuesday, with the School Board considering a slew of stark measures.

Among them: the potential elimination of nearly 400 jobs and the possibility of nonpaid furlough days for all employees.

Clerks, teachers, librarians, administrators — all are on the chopping block as the school district, Pinellas County's biggest employer, seeks to fill a historically deep budget hole resulting from declining enrollment and shrinking state funding.

Superintendent Julie Janssen said after cutting $118 million over the past five years, it will be impossible to keep the latest rounds of cuts from affecting students.

"There's nowhere else to go," she said. "It will start to impact the classroom."

It won't be clear exactly how big the cuts will be until the Legislature passes a budget in coming weeks. But the school district has set a $60 million target based on the latest projections.

For more than nine hours Tuesday, the board took a long look at Janssen's initial proposal to get there. Among the ideas: Eliminating all nonmandated bus transportation (savings: $8 million), cutting substitute teachers by half (savings: $2.6 million) and reducing the hours for heating and air conditioning (savings: $3 million).

But with 85 percent of the budget coming from salaries and benefits, the district has no choice but to turn to its employees.

Tuesday's proposal took an ax to a wide range of positions. High schools would cut 32 instructors who teach electives or non-core classes. Elementary schools would cut 44 teaching assistants. All levels would cut a total of 70 guidance counselors.

It is unclear how many employees may be laid off.

Some of the target positions are vacant. Some are held by those who have already indicated they will retire. And the district hopes many employees, such as the guidance counselors, will be shifted into other job openings.

But the union that represents teachers and support workers began an immediate push back.

"I hate to see them go right for the heart of the guidance counselors," said union president Kim Black, who is a certified guidance counselor. "It seems like once again the workers are taking the burden of the budget cuts."

Black noted that among school-level administrators, three assistant principals were on the cut list. She also said the district is not giving serious attention to a number of proposals that surfaced during input meetings with principals and the public in recent weeks, including a four-day school week and the elimination of school sports.

The proposal is far from a done deal.

Some ideas must still run through the gantlet of collective bargaining with local unions. And the board will continue to weigh in during two workshops next month.

The first budget hearing is July 26.

Board members raised questions about a number of specific proposals.

Member Linda Lerner asked how the proposed cuts to busing would affect low-income students who attend schools beyond their zones.

"I think we have to look at the values of this district," she said. "What are you going to do with all the kids … who can't get to the career academy, who can't get to the fundamental school?"

Member Lew Williams suggested that low-income students were bearing the brunt of the cuts, noting hits to a program for at-risk students in elementary school and the reduction of employees who help special-education students.

"We wouldn't be going to our (International Baccalaureate) program and say we're going to cut some of our (academic) coaches," he said.

Member Janet Clark wanted to see what the savings would be if all employees on 11- and 12- month contracts — including many high-level administrators — had their contracts reduced by a couple of weeks.

Janssen's initial list of cuts reached $50.4 million — and required 3.7 days of unpaid leave to get to the $60 million target. Those furlough days could go up or down depending on what the board wants to spare, and whether it can find viable alternatives.

Janssen said district departments have been asked to keep looking for savings. But, "I don't think the schools can come up with any more," she said.

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

Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen says budget cut proposals will affect students 04/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 11:35pm]
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