Pinellas school employees can breathe a bit easier.
Superintendent Julie Janssen said Friday the school district's deficit projections are $8 million better than anticipated, meaning, in all likelihood, that the painful furloughs proposed for Pinellas County's biggest employer won't happen.
Neither Janssen nor teachers union president Kim Black would say definitively Friday that furloughs are off the table (the two sides will formally bargain at 10 a.m. Monday) but their words left little doubt.
"What Steve is going to bring to the table is a much better offer," Janssen said, referring to Steve Swartzel, the district's chief negotiator.
"I think this news will help the employees sleep better this weekend," said Black.
The shift in the district's gloomy budget picture emerged in recent days, after its finance team tallied up the latest financial figures for the 2009-10 school year, said Fred Matz, the district's chief financial officer.
The district's fund balance turned out to be $2.8 million better than the team had projected in March, while revenues were $500,000 more and expenditures were $4.4 million less.
The additional amount the district estimated it would have to sink into the state retirement fund also dropped, from $5.2 million to $4.6 million.
The result: A $26 million deficit shrank to about $18 million, just like that.
"We've always said the (budget) model, the cuts, are based on projections of where we end up," Matz said. "Things could improve or things could get worse."
Pulling furloughs off the table was "the hope all along," Matz added. But it couldn't be done until the close-to-final numbers arrived and showed how close to projections the district managed to get.
The district presented its $7.8 million furlough plan to the teachers union last week — to a chilly reception.
Under it, most of Pinellas' 8,400 teachers would be forced to take three days of unpaid leave, while principals and assistant principals would take three to nine. Most central office administrators, including Janssen and her top staff, would be forced to take nine.
Even if furloughs fizzle, the district and union will still haggle over other proposed cuts, including an early retirement offer for employees with more than 25 years on the job; and cheaper, provisional contracts for hundreds of new teachers. Meanwhile, the school board will hold the first of two public hearings on its proposed $1.3 billion budget Tuesday.
The district's finance team shared its revised numbers with Janssen on Thursday afternoon.
Her reaction: "I just said, 'I feel like I can be a human being again,' " she said. "I just felt like an ogre all year, monitoring every single thing. I know people thought I was micromanaging, watching every penny. But this is what has happened. It has paid off."
Black, while pleased, said she has questions about how the final numbers changed.
She said the district was overly cautious in its projections and caused employees more anxiety than it needed to.
The union position has been "don't propose furloughs unless we absolutely have to, and we have proven to be correct," Black said. "Would it have mattered if we had waited a week (to propose them)?"
Janssen agreed the district was conservative in its projections — and made no apologies for it.
"I'm always likely to err on the conservative side, so that fiscally we're sound," she said. "You never know truly what that last month (of the fiscal year) is going to look like. It's hard to be so exact."
Janssen also said it's sheer coincidence the new figures nearly match the furlough savings. For anyone to think otherwise, she said, is "ridiculous."
"I'd be stupid to create this doom and then be a magician at the end," she said. For district employees, "that just isn't fair."