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Schools feel the squeeze

The massive machine that is the Pinellas County School District has a $1.35 billion budget, more than 103,000 K-12 students and about 14,000 full-time employees. Even in the best of times, it's a challenge to keep it well-oiled and humming. • And these are not the best of times. • Eight of 16 traditional high schools are D-rated. One is an F. Expectations that they get better have never been higher. And yet, whatever solutions the district can scrounge up will have to come at bargain-bin prices. Pinellas has cleaved $120 million from its budget in the past five years — including $17.7 million for the coming school year — and it's staring down a $54 million hole for 2011-12. • More need + less money = another tough year.

Here's a look at some of the issues the district may tackle in 2010-11, at the same time it's taking a fiscal chain saw to its bottom line.

Budget cuts: The latest ones haven't even sunk in yet, and new specters are beginning to surface. That's what happens when next year's cuts appear to be three times as big as this year's. Will furloughs, avoided at the last minute this year, be inevitable for the next? Will the district be forced to shift a bigger share of health insurance costs to employees? Is another round of school closings coming? It doesn't appear that all of those things combined would be enough to fill the projected deficit for 2011-12.

Fundamental schools: Parents want more of them, and why wouldn't they? They are public schools that mandate parental involvement; the nine in Pinellas boast high test scores and low discipline rates. But it's tricky guesstimating what negative trade-offs an expansion may unload onto other schools. Last fall, the School Board delicately said no to motivated parents who want a second fundamental high school. But they're not going away. What will the board say this time?

Struggling high schools: Three south Pinellas high schools — Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins and Lakewood — will join F-rated Gibbs High this fall under more aggressive state oversight. All three will have new principals. The district is shifting more money to them and seeking grants to help them and the elementary and middle schools that feed them. Will it be enough? Another big question will be answered when high school grades come out: Will Gibbs shake its F?

Teacher evaluations: Teacher accountability is all the rage, and state mandates require new evaluations regardless of whether districts want them. Pinellas is piloting a new system this fall that will include student performance and peer review. Superintendent Julie Janssen hopes to take it districtwide in 2011-12. But in the meantime, the system is being reviewed by state education officials, who may balk at the district's request to base only 30 percent of the evaluation on test scores. Even if they like it, will teachers?

Student discipline: The district does not want another J Hop. Brawls and arrests at John Hopkins Middle dominated headlines for two weeks last spring, put Janssen's leadership skills under scrutiny and brought discipline issues, always on the minds of parents, to the front burner. The district responded by moving dozens of chronically disruptive students. And this summer, it's conducting mass trainings for a districtwide behavior plan. Will it improve things enough to satisfy frustrated parents?

School start times: For academic reasons, the district has long wanted to change middle and high school start times. But its plans have been snakebit. This year, its hopes were dashed by budget cuts and on-guard parents. In an attempt to save money, the district proposed big changes to elementary start times, a modest change to middle school times and no change to high school times. Angry elementary parents forced the School Board to reverse itself. Will it get it right this year?

Leadership: There are lots of new principals and assistant principals this fall, in lots of new places. Janssen moved them, in part, to put stronger leaders where she thought they'd do more good. But at some schools, parents and teachers cried foul at losing a beloved boss; at others, they feared the district had dumped a dud on them. Some say the administrative shuffle exposed a bigger problem in Pinellas: a leadership pool that is too shallow. Will the new principals succeed?

New School Board: The seven-member board will have two to four new faces after this fall's elections. Coming at such a crucial time, new blood could make all the above issues easier — or that much more complicated.

Who's not hoping that the learning curve is short?

School district at a glance

Enrollment: 103,736 in K-12; 32,660 in adult education

Size: Seventh-largest district in Florida

Demographics: 62 percent white, 18.6 percent black, 9.3 percent Hispanic, 3.9 percent Asian, 5.1 percent multiracial, 0.3 percent American Indian

Employees: 13,850 full time, 3,621 part time

Graduation rate: 77.2 percent in 2009

Budget: $1.35 billion

Schools feel the squeeze 07/31/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 31, 2010 1:52pm]
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