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School officials explore savings options aside from layoffs to balance budget

LAND O'LAKES — Hundreds of Pasco schoolchildren could be starting classes an hour earlier than they're used to next year as part of an effort to save almost a half-million dollars.

An enhanced early retirement program could save the Pasco school district as much as $10 million more.

And those are just two of the ideas officials are exploring to keep the district's books balanced in the coming year — despite all the talk coming out of Tallahassee that K-12 schools will be getting a slight increase in funding.

"We're still anticipating a 10 percent cut," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said, echoing comments made by school district leaders across Florida.

What's the concern? First off, they worry that the state budget relies too heavily on incorrect projections.

The state says Pasco will see about 200 more students next year, while the district expects no growth. The state also expects Pasco to see an 11 percent dip in the tax values of local property, while the property appraiser's office is telling the district that decline will be closer to 15 percent.

There's also the issue of all the millions of dollars pouring in from the federal stimulus program. Pasco stands to receive $23 million for operations, with millions more for special education and low-income programs, all with accountability strings attached.

That cash replaces, rather than supplements, state tax income. So when the federal dollars disappear in two years, districts could find themselves in a deep hole if the economy doesn't brighten significantly.

As a result, even as districts are pumping the federal funds into their budgets, they're doing so with some degree of trepidation for the future.

So they're looking to trim whatever they can out of an abundance of caution.

Pasco wants to reduce expenses by another $45 million, even with the stimulus money on its way.

"We need to be fiscally conservative and prepare for the worst to avoid future pain," said School Board member Joanne Hurley, who already is joining the chorus of school leaders expecting a round of state budget cuts again before the end of fiscal 2010.

Even the United School Employees of Pasco shares the pessimism.

"Quite frankly, I don't have a lot of confidence in the budget that was passed," USEP president Lynne Webb said. "The state did not do anything to really address the revenue problems, so I'm fearful of that. … If it were not for the stimulus package, we would be in the tank."

The tension among employees has been tangible, with rumors floating regularly that people will lose jobs and programs might close — two things the School Board is aiming to avoid.

But that means making other parts of the budget as tight as possible.

Hence such moves as changing school start times.

In that proposal, which comes to the School Board on Tuesday, three schools — Shady Hills Elementary, Gulf Middle and the Irvin Education Center — would start classes about an hour earlier than this year, while Oakstead Elementary would open an hour later. Another 39 schools would hear their bells ring five to 10 minutes off the current schedule.

"We made a concerted effort to consolidate routes and have as few buses on the roads as possible," assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said.

Some people might complain. But School Board member Kathryn Starkey suggested the alternative would cause more upset.

"I'd rather change bus schedules than lay off professionals or cut middle school sports," Starkey said.

The board also is looking into the costs and benefits of making it easier for employees to retire earlier. Board member Allen Altman asked for the review after hearing from some district staff that they might be interested if the package were attractive enough.

"We have to judge it over time, whether it is worth it to the district and worth it to the workers," Altman said.

Some options look to be too expensive, but others could save millions, even with limited participation, according to draft documents that went to the board last week.

The board will discuss the idea during a workshop today.

All sorts of other concepts remain on the table for the board's consideration. It will have a budget workshop on Tuesday, where it also expects to get recommendations from an advisory committee made up of teachers and district administrators.

The board's final budget hearing is scheduled for Sept. 15.

Fiorentino said her finance team is looking at all the ways to make the money go as far as possible.

"We are carefully reviewing all of our options to enhance the quality of educational opportunities while saving and creating as many jobs as possible," she said.

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 officials explore savings options aside from layoffs to balance budget 05/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 7:56pm]
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