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Proposed school cuts won't fill a growing deficit

A budget crisis that already is pushing Pinellas County schools toward several harsh decisions is even worse than expected, officials said Friday.

A projected $39-million shortfall for the 2009-10 fiscal year now is expected to surpass $48-million, officials said in a letter e-mailed to all district employees.

In addition, the budget supporting the current school year's operations could shrink by as much as $31-million before the year is out, not $14.4-million as previously thought.

Numbers like those will have the School Board playing catch-up when it meets Tuesday for an initial vote on a budget-cutting package. The plan includes school closings and a proposal that would force thousands of children into new schools next year to save money on busing.

The closings were supposed to cut into the $39-million shortfall by $6-million to $7-million. Now they won't even cover the increase in the shortfall.

"I'm starting to understand how people feel when they can't pay their rent," School Board member Carol Cook said.

"We've got to do some three- to five-year planning rather than putting people through this every year," said board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea. "Because this isn't getting any better. It's unbelievable."

The new numbers prompted superintendent Julie Janssen to call a meeting of her top administrators on Monday.

"We get in every department, and we start lifting up the rugs and saying how can we do this more efficiently," she said in an interview. "There's no department that we don't look at. … Everything's going to be put on the table."

The district can "only close so many schools" and still educate Pinellas students, Janssen said.

Attention will turn to other district operations, including construction of schools, she said.

Asked whether she was thinking of administrative cuts and steps such as early retirement packages, Janssen said, "We're going to look at that too. Nobody is sacred."

Pinellas is not alone.

Hillsborough school officials already were planning for a $26-million budget cut this year. But after seeing the latest revenue estimates, they are bracing for cuts as deep as $55-million.

Next year looks worse, with a projected revenue loss of $115-million.

"This is something new and different," said Connie Milito, a lobbyist for the Hillsborough school system. "We're planning for the worst."

Pinellas officials said the numbers came into sharper focus this week in Tampa, where several educational organizations, including the Florida School Boards Association, met in a joint conference titled, "Leadership: Our Bridge Over Troubled Waters."

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the school boards association, said the group is pushing for a special legislative session to address the shortfalls.

He said one of the quickest and fairest fixes would be for the state to tax Internet sales like it taxes regular retail sales.

Pinellas is basing its predictions for the current year's shortfall on recent state projections.

The predictions for next year are based on other factors, including an arbitrator's ruling this week that the district's contract with teachers will not allow it to continue a money-saving schedule change in middle schools.

Cook, who attended the conference with other Pinellas officials, said the budget situation had gotten so over-the-top that despair among local education officials has turned to resolve and a focus on convincing legislators come up with more revenue for education.

"I think people are starting to wake up," she said. "I think they're starting to see this is no longer acceptable."

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report.

.Fast facts

The cuts keep coming

The Pinellas school system's current operating budget is $928-million, of which $715-million goes to salaries and benefits. Like other Florida school districts, Pinellas has cut its operating budget in recent years as state revenues have declined. A recent history of those cuts:

2006-07: $17-million

2007-08: $4.5-million

2008-09: $26.8-million (initial)

$31-million (mid year)*

2009-10: $48.3-million*

2010-11: $34-million*

* Projected

Proposed school cuts won't fill a growing deficit 12/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 10:38pm]
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