BROOKSVILLE — Schools superintendent Bryan Blavatt put it just about this bluntly: We're several million dollars in the hole. Tell me what's sacred, and what cuts can you stomach?
Blavatt and chief financial officer Desiree Henegar offered a grim budget assessment during the School Board's second budget workshop Tuesday. The district has an estimated operating deficit of $2.7 million this year, and must by law keep in reserve 2 percent of its general fund, or $3.1 million, bringing the total deficit to $5.8 million.
Blavatt asked for guidance in where to look for savings in an already lean school district.
"You guys are now going to say, 'Okay, Bryan, earn your money, give us some things to look at, and I've got to know what the parameters are," Blavatt said.
Board members offered some ideas. Teaching positions for core subjects are sacrosanct, they said, and at least three board members said that art and music classes should be off limits, too.
"Everything else we do is secondary," Chairman Pat Fagan said.
That could include the automatic salary increases built into teacher contracts, Fagan and Board member Sandra Nicholson said, though eliminating the so-called step increase would require negotiations with the teacher union.
Board member Dianne Bonfield repeated her desire to shift staffers such as reading coaches and assessment teachers into core teaching positions.
Nicholson said the supplements teachers receive for extra duties might have to be reduced and that it's probably time to cut back on "fun things" like field trips.
The deficit would be even greater if the board hadn't approved a new bell schedule this month, cutting the number of buses on the road by 15 and saving $750,000. Bonfield said she wasn't willing to eliminate courtesy bus service — transporting students who live within 2 miles of their school. Though the move would save about $1.2 million, the board has shot that down in the past, citing safety concerns.
A committee is expected to come up with a proposal for activity fees, but Blavatt said last week that won't happen in time for this school year.
The pressure will be even greater to find savings because board members on Tuesday reiterated their steadfast opposition to raising the tax rate by 0.25 for every $1,000 of taxable value, or $25 on a $125,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption.
The Legislature last year gave districts the ability to levy the so-called critical needs quarter mill. For Hernando, that would mean an estimated $2.2 million for the 2010-11 budget.
"The state has put it right in our laps, whether it's fair or unfair," Blavatt said. "I understand you folks are elected officials and you have to represent the public. I represent the children of this county, and with all due respect to you, that additional revenue would help tremendously for kids."
The state sets most of the school millage, and Hernando's preliminary rate is 7.316 mills, or $731.60 for the example home cited above. That's a $16.30 decrease from last year's rate, so if the board levied the additional quarter mill, the actual increase from last year would be $8.70.
The first public budget hearing is July 27. The board has until Sept. 7 to set the final millage.
At least one board member acknowledged that it may be difficult to turn down all of the cost-savings ideas that have been dismissed in the past, especially if voters do not approve an easing of the class-size requirements this fall.
"The last few years the board has been asked to look at cuts and no matter what we couldn't get three people to support it," Nicholson said. "Maybe it's gotten so bad we don't have a choice."
In other action:
• The board gave informal approval to Blavatt's administrative reorganization plan. The plan adds a data entry clerk for the exceptional student education department; a manager of risk management and employee benefits; a manager of assessment and accountability; and a coordinator of student services. By eliminating or combining other vacant positions, the reorganization results in a net savings of $4,700, Blavatt said.
• The board voted to suspend without pay Ann Guarnieri, an exceptional education teacher at Moton Elementary School in Brooksville. Guarnieri is appealing the superintendent's recommendation to fire her after the district concluded she failed to use proper techniques to control a student who was not following directions. Guarnieri said she was trying to protect herself as the student tried to bite and hit her. Her case will be heard by an administrative law judge, who then makes a non-binding recommendation to the board.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or at (352) 584-5537.