School budget protest spills into streets

Laura Metallo, executive board member of United School Employees of Pasco, chants, “Do the right thing, not the easy thing,” during the budget protest.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Laura Metallo, executive board member of United School Employees of Pasco, chants, “Do the right thing, not the easy thing,” during the budget protest.

LAND O'LAKES — Wearing red and waving signs, Pasco school district employees lined both sides of U.S. 41 on Tuesday chanting their opposition to a the School Board's plan to approve a budget without pay increases.

"Do the right thing! Not the easy thing!" the group of about 250 workers shouted to passing drivers, many of whom honked and waved in support.

"We honor our part of the contract. They should honor their side," Pasco High special education teacher Sarah Trowell said during the protest, insisting that the district should pay "step" increases already provided for in their contract.

After picketing for more than an hour, the group filled the board meeting room to capacity and flowed into the hallway. They came to register their displeasure with the $1.2-billion budget, which was up for final approval.

"Do the right thing," United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb urged the board. "Go back and reprioritize your pet projects. … Find dollars to pay your employees."

Late Tuesday, the board was still listening to comments about the spending plan, which included keeping the tax rate unchanged at $7.208 per $1,000 of taxable value.

Adoption of the budget was expected, as the board faced a statutory deadline to have its budget in place. Board members have held several workshops on the plan over months, working to reduce spending by $16-million because of declining state revenue.

More cuts are expected as the state's revenue estimates continue to tank. The district also had 1,000 students less than projected as of the 20th day of classes.

By December, district officials expect to have to cut an additional $8.1-million.

Yet the primary concern among many employees was the proposal not to pay them their annual pay increases based on years of service. That move, which saved the district about $6-million, was likened to a pay decrease by many in attendance.

"A lot of (school-related professionals) have already seen their hours cut. Many of the kitchen staff have seen their benefits cut," said Robert Moore, a district air conditioning mechanic who serves as a vice president of the United School Employees of Pasco. "It's tough. It really is."

Pine View Middle geography teacher Barbara Phillips said employees need the money to keep up with the rising cost of living. Many are taking second jobs, she noted.

"I understand this is tough economic times," Phillips said, noting the district's statements that it is trying to do the same work with less money than a year ago. "But people have to be able to eat and they have to be able to get to work."

And, they stressed, they are doing the work for the kids.

It's the employees who "truly make this a great school system," Land O'Lakes High teacher Robert Marsh told the board, as he railed against the budget and the politics behind it.

Of course, not everyone sided with the union members' passionately voiced views.

Some employees sent e-mails to superintendent Heather Fiorentino stressing their own views on the budget.

"I have spoken with many [colleagues] and have come to an overwhelming conclusion that we are not comfortable with receiving a raise if it means that some of our fellow co-workers will no longer have jobs," wrote Jodi Bailey, a River Ridge High data entry specialist.

Lynn Hathaway, a secretary in the student services department, shared that view.

"There are thousands of people out right now looking for positions — any positions — to work," she said in an interview. "We work in a very proud organization. We have our positions and we are well taken care of by the district. I believe (Fiorentino) is doing the right thing to see that none of us lose our positions."

Board members did not comment during the public budget hearing. To read about the final vote on the budget, check the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education information, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

School budget protest spills into streets 09/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 19, 2008 8:32pm]

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