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School district faces additional $9.1-million cut in spending

LAND O'LAKES — The other shoe dropped for Pasco schools Tuesday, as word came from Tallahassee that the district would face a $9.1-million funding cut for the remainder of the fiscal year.

District officials, who already have slashed $16-million in spending compared to the year before, said they plan to take a close look at where they can further scale back while still avoiding layoffs, maintaining fully-paid health benefits and keeping classroom cuts to a minimum.

"We aren't changing those goals," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said.

The School Board's approval of a new self-insurance health plan saved the district about $1.8-million that can go toward the deficit. A decrease in gasoline prices and a concerted effort to conserve electricity also have generated some savings.

At the same time, the district finance department has determined that the board can dip into reserves for about $3-million without negatively impacting the district's bond ratings.

But that leaves close to $4-million more that must be cut. (That does not include an expected additional $4-million loss because the district fell about 1,000 students shy of its enrollment projections.)

Attention likely will turn to programs that do not generate revenue yet cost money. Those would be things such as middle school sports, extracurricular activities and field trips.

"There's not going to be any sacred cows out there, other than the classroom," board vice chairman Frank Parker said.

Fiorentino said she already has asked her senior staff to look for ideas. She also planned to contact principals, the United School Employees of Pasco and other key players to seek their input on where cuts would hurt the least.

"Next week, we're going to start putting it together," she said.

Retiring School Board member Marge Whaley observed that the staff will have to figure out exactly how much each proposed cut might save, an exercise that could take time when time is of the essence.

She suggested that the board must move with haste to avoid exacerbating the problem by taking even routine actions such as hiring employees when it can't afford the connected salaries.

"They need to set some criteria right away," Whaley said.

Parker said the board might have to become an "equal opportunity offender," cutting across the board "things that are absolutely not necessary."

The latest state financial news made added pay for employees even less likely than before.

"I think our position on the budget has been consistent," Parker said.

The administration and employees association are headed to mediation to seek a resolution over stalled negotiations. Fewer than a quarter of the state's 67 school districts have settled their contracts.

Fiorentino pointed a finger at the state Legislature, saying it needs to take a closer look at education "and what they're doing to it." The state is contributing less than half of the public education budget for the first time in decades, despite a constitutional requirement to adequately fund a high quality school system.

The likelihood that lawmakers might do anything other than seek to further streamline services, rather than find more money through taxes or some other source, is low, said state Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, a contender to lead one of the House appropriations committees.

"I think we're going to try to live within our means," Weatherford said. "We've got some money in savings, and we've got some areas in government we can make more efficient. ... I think this will be our toughest year."

Legislative leaders have not set a special session for December to tackle the budget woes, despite calls from several groups to have one. The Pasco School Board could begin talking about its budget situation as early as its meeting next week Tuesday.

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

School district faces additional $9.1-million cut in spending 11/11/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 8:41pm]
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