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Superintendent Stewart embraces Pinellas Education Foundation cost-cutting ideas

Pinellas County school superintendent John Stewart promised Wednesday to implement as many of the millions of dollars in cost-cutting ideas as possible from among those floated last week by a local group of business leaders.

"In my opinion," Stewart told a gathering of community leaders during an education symposium at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, "we would be foolish to gloss over this body of work that was so painstakingly prepared for us when every dollar saved could be potentially rerouted to benefit students and teachers in the district."

The symposium was sponsored by the Pinellas Education Foundation, a business-led nonprofit that last week released a 37-page report highlighting potential savings if the district made certain changes in transportation, energy, purchasing, construction, health insurance and maintenance.

Stewart said Wednesday that personal reasons forced him to miss the foundation's presentation last week to Pinellas School Board members.

The recommendations included moving to a self-funded medical insurance plan for employees, opening onsite medical clinics, subcontracting bus driving services to a private firm, raising building thermostat settings by three degrees, purchasing items in concert with other agencies and addressing facilities needs through renovations rather than new construction.

Stewart, whose term as schools chief ends in December, said he's asked the district's department heads to consider every idea.

"No recommendation will be dismissed simply because it may be difficult to implement," Stewart said. "In a time of dwindling educational resources, in spite of the Legislature's $1 billion funding boost, we need to seriously reflect on every opportunity to save the taxpayers dollars."

Pinellas schools have a $1.3 billion budget, 101,000 students and 17,000 employees. And while Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign a state budget that includes $1 billion more for public schools compared with last year, Stewart said the district is still poised to trim $5 million this year to offset deep cuts from years past.

Though the proposed 2002-13 budget would raise education funding by about $150 per pupil, Pinellas school funding last year was cut by $585 per student, Stewart said.

"We're still talking about having to reduce, not add," he said.

The Pinellas Education Foundation rounded up about 32 volunteer business leaders to pore over the district's finances. Though many of the suggestions have been talked about by the district staff in the past, Stewart said, it is valuable to have a third party weigh in.

The heads of four unions representing school district employees on Tuesday wrote a one-page letter to Stewart and board members explaining that they have long supported — and encouraged — many of the cost-savings measures the foundation leaders suggested in the areas of health benefits, including opening health clinics and moving to a self-insured plan.

Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Kim Black said she welcomes many of the foundation's recommendations, but felt that some of the same ideas met with resistance in the past.

"If that has happened," School Board chairwoman Robin Wikle said, "it's before my time. ... That, to me, is a positive because it's something I want to explore."

Craig Sher, chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, said he was heartened by Stewart's willingness to quickly move forward on the foundation's suggestions. He said he'd like to have a representative at every School Board meeting to ensure follow-through. He also encouraged other government agencies to similarly welcome the scrutiny of business leaders with expertise in cutting spending.

"There's lots of ways to advocate for children," Sher said, "and this is just one."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@tampabay.com.

Superintendent Stewart embraces Pinellas Education Foundation cost-cutting ideas 04/11/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 12, 2012 9:41am]
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