Thursday, December 14, 2017
Education

Talks of cost savings dominate Pinellas School Board workshop

LARGO — Pinellas County school superintendent John Stewart has ordered his staff to temporarily halt business with the auction house that organized a recent school district property sale that raised concerns that the district was getting short-changed.

The measure was one in a multipronged approach he believes is necessary to ensure taxpayer dollars are not wasted on warehoused or discarded school district property.

"We have to make sure that everyone in this district has a respect for property and for the amount of money that is being spent on it," he said. "I don't care if it's a piece of paper or a high-end camera."

Harrow's Auctions of Tampa didn't do a bad job running the April 28 auction, Stewart said, but the district needs time to reassess how it can get top dollar for discarded property.

His comments came at the end of a six-hour School Board workshop during which saving money in the $1.3 billion budget was a continual refrain.

Tim Russell, a Pinellas Park pawnbroker, told the Tampa Bay Times last week that he expected to turn a huge profit on pallets of electronics he bought at the school district's annual auction.

In response, Stewart said Tuesday that he has decided to move oversight of the district's surplus property from the facilities department to finance. He also will create a committee of teachers, maintenance employees, a business owner and a principal to review discarded property before it goes to auction.

In addition to briefing the board about surplus property concerns, top district administrators spent hours responding point-by-point to a series of detailed cost-savings ideas floated in April by the Pinellas Education Foundation in its "Savings for Classrooms" report.

The foundation, a business-led nonprofit that raises money to benefit schools and students, last year assembled 32 business and government leaders to scour the district's finances in the areas of construction, energy, health insurance, maintenance, purchasing and transportation.

Their ideas included everything from privatizing transportation services to switching out lightbulbs in schools to adopting a self-insured health plan.

Department heads from each of those areas shared what they think is possible and what isn't.

"We received this with open arms," said Michael Bessette, assistant superintendent of facilities and operations.

Possible: raising the threshold for purchases that require School Board approval from $25,000 to $50,000 in order to free up staff from the purchasing department to spend more time focusing on areas of more substantial savings.

Not possible: eliminating air conditioning on school buses.

Almost every route serves at least one child with a medical condition that requires the district provide an air-conditioned bus, Bessette said. They're not ready to stop that, he said.

Leaders from the Pinellas Education Foundation sat in the room as Stewart's staff detailed their responses.

But even some of the easiest-sounding recommendations the business leaders made — like changing to more energy-efficient lightbulbs — were met with complicated responses.

It would cost $17,414 to change out lightbulbs in one elementary school, $21,768 in one middle school and $33,196 in one high school, Bessette said.

"It is a priority for us," Bessette said. "We don't have the dollars to do it all at once."

And though the foundation leaders made some aggressive recommendations about health benefits, including moving to a self-insured plan, Ted Pafundi, director of risk management for the district, said it doesn't appear doing so would result in savings.

At least for 2013, insurance companies told district leaders it could cost $9 million to $13.9 million more, he said.

Irwin Novack, CEO of Kane's Furniture, who also chaired the foundation group that looked at district health care costs, urged the board to collaborate with his group to continue to look at this area.

Craig Sher, chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, was encouraged that the board and district leaders took the proposals seriously, but said there's still work to be done.

"It just needs to be aired out more," he said.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]

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