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Pinellas schools brace for $60 million in cuts

Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen told School Board members Tuesday that the district is focused on slicing $60 million from its budget next year after chopping about $120 million over the past five.

How deep a cut is that?

To give members a sense of the magnitude, district officials noted that $60 million is the equivalent of 960 teachers. Or an 11 percent pay cut for every employee. Or the cost of every administrator, plus $30 million.

"That is very jarring," said board member Linda Lerner. "Everyone's going to take a hit … including our students."

The next few months will be a "very trying and very emotional time," said deputy superintendent Jim Madden.

The district is planning to give employees a good idea of what's in store by the time the school year ends June 8.

In coming weeks, it's planning a series of committee meetings to pore over budget-cutting options. It has also scheduled six sessions in different parts of the district, all on March 21, to solicit ideas from the community.

The exact amount to be cut will remain unclear until the legislative session ends in May. District officials are using $60 million as a target, given projections that range from $34 million to $86 million.

The former figure is what the district expects to cut if state education funding remains stable. The latter is what it will have to cut if the Legislature follows Gov. Rick Scott's budget proposal to cut funding by $780 per student.

Key lawmakers say Scott's proposal is off the mark, but they have also warned that some cuts are likely.

"It's been a long time since we counted on the Legislature to save us," said board Chairwoman Carol Cook.

Not only is the economy still sputtering, but Florida schools are running out of federal stimulus funding (that was $35.9 million in Pinellas this year). And many districts, such as Pinellas, will no longer be able to tap a small, self-imposed property tax increase unless lawmakers change the rules. That increase brought the district $15.2 million this year.

District employees narrowly avoided furloughs last year after district deficit projections turned out to be $6 million less gloomy than anticipated. Given that 85 percent of the budget is salaries and benefits, district officials suggested it'll be tough to avoid hitting pocketbooks.

"To come up with a $60 million cut, you'd be touching salaries," said assistant superintendent Kevin Smith.

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

Pinellas schools brace for $60 million in cuts 03/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 10:17pm]
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