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Pinellas schools need to cut $26 million next year, superintendent says

LARGO — More financial pain is headed to Pinellas schools. And thousands of parents may feel the hurt.

After cutting $104 million in core spending over the last four years, the Pinellas school district must cut another $26 million next year, superintendent Julie Janssen announced Thursday.

On the list of possibilities: Ending busing for 4,600 middle and high school students (savings: $2.2 million to $3.3 million). And forcing employees to take furloughs (savings: $2.4 million per day.)

"I don't sleep a lot," Janssen said after breaking the news to principals. "Every single thing is being looked at."

"The last thing we want to do is (require) leave without pay," she continued. "But it may end up being that way."

Planning for budget cuts has become a spring ritual.

Last year, the Pinellas district cut $37.5 million, in part by closing five schools, merging five others and wrenching $11 million out of its transportation budget. The 2011-12 budget already has a $37.8 million hole because federal stimulus money dries up next spring.

Now this.

The proposed state budget, awaiting Gov. Charlie Crist's signature, shows per-pupil funding at roughly the same level as last year. But several factors still add up to less money, including a mandated hike in contributions to the state retirement system (that will cost Pinellas $5.2 million more) and, in Pinellas specifically, fewer students and lower revenue projections.

"People say, 'Oh, there's always waste,' " said School Board member Peggy O'Shea. "But not in the amounts we're talking about, after the cuts we've had in the last three or four years."

Many parents won't be happy with what may be ahead.

This fall, 2,800 high school and 1,800 middle school students not in magnet programs are expected to use "arterial" bus routes on major roads. They were grandfathered into their chosen schools after the district returned to neighborhood schools two years ago, and allowed to continue riding buses.

But phasing out bus service for all of them would save $3.3 million, said associate superintendent Michael Bessette. Phasing out all but high school seniors would save $2.2 million.

"Do you want to lose programs or busing?" Bessette said. "There's no good choices left."

Another proposal would nix busing for 250 students at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School and 442 at Osceola Fundamental Middle School, the only two fundamental schools that have such service. The savings: $750,000.

But the savings may have other costs, said Keri Halpain, president of Thurgood Marshall's parent teacher student association.

"Our school is diverse," she said. "I would hate to see that impacted because there wasn't a bus system."

The School Board will hear more details at a workshop May 20, and is likely to give more direction about which cuts members prefer. The first budget hearing is July 27.

The potential cuts do not include eliminating a small pay raise for the district's 7,000 teachers, negotiated last year. Janssen has said she would not go back on that agreement.

The cuts also assume the district can meet the requirements of the 2002 class-size amendment with existing personnel.

The district needs 240 teachers, at a potential cost of $14.4 million, to meet the final phase-in of the amendment. But Janssen said the district can meet that goal without new hires, in part by returning some employees, such as reading and math coaches, to classrooms.

She said the district is looking at every teacher to make sure as many as possible are in front of students, teaching full loads. Don't try to "hide them," she told the principals.

Among other potential cuts:

• Restricting air conditioning to a half-hour before school starts and a half-hour after it ends. (Savings: $2.4 million.)

• Revisiting the district's contributions to health insurance. (The district now pays nearly 82 percent. Reducing to 80 percent would save about $2 million, said district CFO Fred Matz.)

• Moving administrators and some other staffers from 12-month to 11-month salaries. (Potential savings there have not been calculated, Matz said.)

Furloughs were considered last year but not adopted. If they happen, they would occur on days when students are not in school, such as work days just before and after the school year and planning and professional development days, Matz said.

Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, said the union obviously would work to protect the pay and benefits of its members. But he said it's too early to panic.

"They're just at the brainstorming stage," he said. "There's a long way to go before this is over."

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

Pinellas schools need to cut $26 million next year, superintendent says 05/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 1:12am]

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