LAND O'LAKES — The roiling issues of Florida school funding and teacher tenure come front and center in Pasco County today, as the School Board begins budget cutting while teachers protest plans to overhaul their livelihood.
"We are at such a critical point in education between what is happening with Senate Bill 6, school funding and attempts to undermine the class-size amendment," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco. "The people need to stand up and say enough is enough. We've got to take back public education."
School Board member Frank Parker said the state Legislature has put the board in the tough position of having to slash spending for a third consecutive year while leaving it with little local control. Lawmakers even look poised to force school boards to raise the local tax rate, he said.
"We're just pawns down here. All of us," he said.
Parker was reluctant to say much about what the School Board might do to meet projections that it will have $50 million less to spend next year than this year, as it begins its budget workshops at 1:30 p.m. today.
"We really don't know the revenue side until the Legislature gets done. After the past few years, you can't guess with them," he said. "It hasn't been pleasant with the cuts the last few years, and it looks like it will be worse."
As revenue has gone down, the school district has attempted to avoid layoffs, reductions in employee benefits and elimination of academic programs.
"I don't think we can use the word 'protect' anymore, because I'm not so sure we can protect anything," vice chairwoman Joanne Hurley said. "Hopefully, we can do things that don't affect the core learning of students."
She dismissed the idea of moving to a four-day class week as detrimental. But she did not rule out "staffing decisions" that previously would not have received a passing glance.
"Right now, I think we need to look at protecting the classroom teachers, and everything else would be on the table," Hurley said. "And that's a sad thing."
Board member Kathryn Starkey promised just one thing will come from the 2010-11 budget — no one will be happy.
"I am hoping our staff has maybe found some miraculous way to save our arts programs, our sports, our bands, and to not have to lay off people," Starkey said. "But I don't know how we can avoid it."
She speculated that the district might have to dip into its reserve funds that it has zealously guarded at 5 percent in order to maintain its strong bond ratings. That might be the only way to preserve some of the core items that the district needs, she said.
Hurley said she had some other ideas about the budget, but didn't want to make them public just yet.
"Anything I would say would be misconstrued or it would lead to even further detriment in morale. I don't want to go there," she said. "They have been agitated, for good reason, for some time now. I don't want to add to that."
She referred to teacher anger over Senate Bill 6, which looks to change the way teachers are paid, evaluated, certified and contracted. The legislation has riled many teachers beyond the usual union activists.
They've written letters to lawmakers, signed petitions and joined social networking groups in opposition. At least one local teacher has composed a protest song.
At 4:30 p.m., teachers and other school employees plan to picket at the offices of three local lawmakers: Reps. Will Weatherford and John Legg, and Sen. Mike Fasano.
"I see people more angry than ever before," said Webb, who also intends to keep close watch over the School Board budget workshop. "I'm glad they are angry and wanting to take action vs. feeling totally defeated. I believe this sleeping giant has been awakened."
The House Education Policy Council is scheduled to consider the teacher working conditions proposals at noon Monday. The Legislature continues to hash out its budget for 2010-11.
The district's 2010-11 budget must be complete by September.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more state education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.