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Tampa Bay school districts brace for deeper budget cuts

Dozens of Hillsborough schoolteachers, bus drivers, support staffers and union workers rally against state budget cuts Wednesday at Lambright Street and N Dale Mabry Highway.  

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Dozens of Hillsborough schoolteachers, bus drivers, support staffers and union workers rally against state budget cuts Wednesday at Lambright Street and N Dale Mabry Highway. 

The prospect of teacher layoffs and furloughs inched closer to reality Wednesday for some Tampa Bay area school districts, as officials took their full measure of this week's state budget deal.

House and Senate conferees cut education funding by $1.3 billion in their proposed $68 billion budget for next fall, about 30 percent deeper than officials had been expecting. If approved, the plan would reduce student funding by 8 percent, or $545 per child, and push Florida's education support back to 2006 levels.

"It would be premature to say how it's going to impact us, but we know it's going to significantly hurt us even more than we were planning," Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen said.

Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said her district's budget shortfall would be worse than the $3.8 million projected last week — but it wasn't clear how much worse. Hers is the only district in Tampa Bay that has so far ruled out teacher layoffs and furloughs.

"I think the whole thing is going to be dependent on which districts statewide have held tight onto their Education Jobs Fund money," Elia said, referring to her district's $41 million portion of a $10 billion emergency fund awarded to states last year. "We didn't spend a cent of it."

That's the crux of the problem in Pinellas, where School Board members were already grappling this week with news that about one-third of their $21.7 million grant had been spent complying with the state class-size amendment.

Now the district is facing a dire picture: $66 million in funding cuts and just $15 million in federal money to stem the shortfall. Every model they're considering includes staff furloughs, Janssen said.

Board members questioned whether staff had spent the money properly. But by Wednesday, union president Kim Black's ire was directed squarely at state legislators.

"The real budget impact will be on the students," Black said. "Floridians should really be outraged. The interests of students has fallen by the wayside."

Hillsborough board chairwoman Doretha Edgecomb said this year's turbulent legislative ride made planning nearly impossible.

"There was nothing normal about this session at all," she said. "None of that seemed to work this year."

Officials last week pegged the shortfall in their nearly $3 billion budget at $3.8 million. But the legislative conference committee chopped $100 million in funding, $25 million more than expected.

If that shortfall doesn't shrink, Edgecomb predicted the district may be forced to leave more positions unfilled. And noncore classes like art and physical education may get a lot bigger.

"Those class sizes will just go up, and they won't hire all those teachers," said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers' Association.

She said the Legislature built its budget on the backs of teachers by forcing them to contribute 3 percent to their retirements — in effect, a pay cut — while offering tax cuts to corporations.

"There is no fat to cut," said John Perry, 47, a fifth-grade teacher at Bryan Elementary, who was protesting Wednesday with about 40 colleagues on N Dale Mabry Highway. "They are upping the ante on accountability for teachers and then pulling the rug out from under us with funding."

His homemade sign read, "Corporations get Billions in tax breaks while Florida's children get the shaft."

Pasco school officials had already been planning on $60 million in spending cuts, down 7 percent from current levels, and may now need to cut $4 million more.

And Hernando added $2.1 million to its projected cut of $10 million. Officials are considering fees to participate in extracurricular activities and may cut high school electives. They'll also need to leave unfilled positions empty. And the district could eliminate bus service for students who live within 2 miles of school.

A deeper cut makes more likely some painful decisions that will affect the services that students and parents are accustomed to, Hernando superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

Officials with former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future cautioned that legislators had little choice, given the dire economic situation.

"The Legislature had very difficult decisions to make to produce a responsibly balanced budget that invests in Florida's future," said spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof. "We knew there would be reductions, given the tough budget year, but we are thankful they protected the education budget and reform programs as much as possible."

Hillsborough superintendent Elia, too, found it difficult to lay blame.

"It's tough to second-guess people when it's a really bad situation," she said.

Times staff writers Ron Matus, Tony Marrero, Robbyn Mitchell, Luis Perez and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Tampa Bay school districts brace for deeper budget cuts 05/04/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 12:11am]

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