As a bill to overhaul Florida's teaching profession flies through the Legislature, local school leaders have focused their attention on the $900 million bottom line.
Financially, the timing couldn't be worse.
Senate Bill 6 calls for school districts to set aside 5 percent of their total budgets to establish a teacher performance pay system.
It would have to be culled as school districts run out of more than $2 billion in federal stimulus money, and as they face big bills for implementing the final phase of the multibillion-dollar class-size amendment.
The new mandate also comes after most districts have made historic reductions in school spending, sustaining round after round of cuts since the summer of 2007.
The Florida House is poised for a final vote this week on its version of the bill.
"If they don't have money, where do they think we're going to get it?" Pinellas School Board member Janet Clark asked, referring to state lawmakers. "I think they have all lost their minds."
The money districts set aside would be used to develop tests to assess student gains in every class, establish new teacher evaluation systems that rely on the results, and pay teachers based on the outcomes.
House bill sponsor Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, said if districts had been using student assessments to evaluate teachers since 1999, as required by law, the state would not be forcing them to do it now.
As for complaints that the budget implications are too harsh, Legg added, "It should have been done since 1999 when there were 14 percent budget increases."
Hillsborough County is exempt from SB 6 because of its multimillion-dollar initiative with the Gates Foundation to create its own performance pay model.
But for other districts, "it's going to be a big challenge," said Pat Fagan, chairman of the Hernando County School Board.
Districts already have struggled for three years to make ends meet: They've laid off teachers and staff members, eliminated programs, implemented furloughs and pay cuts.
Things don't look likely to improve.
Property values continue to slide, right along with state taxes. In 2010-11, the costly state constitutional amendment to limit class sizes will move to its final phase unless voters approve another amendment delaying full implementation.
Then in 2011-12, districts will run out of federal stimulus funds — including $51 million in Pinellas County and $32 million in Pasco County — just as they have to make the performance pay program a reality.
Local superintendents are floored by the possibility of even more budget cuts.
"You don't just go out and cut $40 million," said Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen, referring to the amount of money that Pinellas will have to set aside for the performance fund.
"You're talking major money in a dwindling economy," said Pasco school superintendent Heather Fiorentino.
Even before SB 6, Pasco officials had been considering 1 percent pay cuts for next year, in addition to charging employees more for benefits and eliminating some positions.
Similar ideas are percolating in Pinellas schools.
The district agreed to small raises for its teachers in the 2010-11 school year. But board member Carol Cook said she can't rule out that the district might go back on its negotiated contract with the teachers union and impose a new, unfavorable deal.
"Am I willing to say now we would impose a contract? No," Cook said. "But is that off the table? Nothing is off the table."
But Janssen said she was not willing to revisit the contract and "go back on my word." Other possibilities, she said, might be furloughs or eliminating the "arterial" bus system that allows thousands of high school students to attend schools outside their neighborhood zones.
Fiorentino suggested there might be easier ways to accomplish the desired results.
For example, she said, the state might set aside just 1 percent of education funding rather than 5 percent to develop statewide exams, rather than having every district create its own. "You always want to do what is best for kids. But they're making it financially impossible," she said.
This week, Duval County School Board member W.C. Gentry told lawmakers that many school board members across the state support the principles the Legislature is trying to implement. But he warned against the unintended consequences of micromanaging from Tallahassee.
Existing salaries and programs are the likely losers, Gentry said.
"It's a zero-sum game. You've got a pot. If 5 percent comes out, where does the money come from?" he asked.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8873. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.