BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County school district has begun the painful process of paring down its workforce, telling more than 200 nontenured teachers and support staffers this week that their contracts for next fall will not be renewed.
Those nonreappointment notices — which come in addition to about 80 pink slips given to teachers last month for performance reasons — are being delivered to plug a projected deficit of $16 million to $25 million in the district's $159 million operating budget, officials said Friday.
There's just one problem with that scenario, according to the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association: The deficit may not happen next fall.
"The projected budget was not reflective of the new state budget," said HCTA president Joe Vitalo. "They need to look at revising the staffing plan now. There's no grounds for $16 million in cuts and laying off over 200 people."
Under the latest budget plans being crafted in Tallahassee, he said, the state Senate is proposing a $600,000 increase for Hernando next year compared to current funding, while the House is recommending a $900,000 increase. That's on top of $3 million the district is receiving in stimulus funds for its federal programs, he said.
Vitalo said the union wants the School Board to call an emergency meeting to revise the staffing plan the board approved on March 23. And he said the union would file a grievance if the board fails to reverse the latest round of teacher nonreappointments.
"We had spoken of layoffs," Vitalo added, referring to worst-case scenarios discussed with the board. "Nonreappointment means you're fired."
But superintendent Wayne Alexander said he was not inclined to adjust the plan before the Legislature settles its budget later this spring.
"The board has approved the staffing formula we're putting in place at this point," he added. "I don't want to move too soon. We've got to wait and see what the numbers are."
District officials said they had hoped to reduce staffing levels through the normal attrition of retirements and departures. Those numbers have fluctuated between 125 and 80 in recent years, Vitalo said.
This year's attrition was estimated at 115 and turned out to be around 98, said business services director Heather Martin.
That number covers the initial round of 80 pink slips the district issued in early March, but it wasn't nearly sufficient to cover the 200 additional nonreappointments forced by the budget, she said.
"It's no different than we've done any other year," Martin added. "Principals just happen to have less (budget) allocations than they normally would. We're just squeezed a lot more this year."
At its last meeting March 23, three members of the five-member School Board voted in favor of the staffing plan district officials say they are now carrying out. That plan reduces 129 classroom teaching positions, plus about 70 teachers who work in supporting roles, and raises average class sizes by two or three students at every level. It also cuts positions on the facilities, maintenance and central office staffs.
Two members voted against that plan. James Yant said he was opposed to cutting jobs except as a last resort, while John Sweeney said he was concerned that seniority rules might protect "underperforming" teachers.
"If we are going to be left with fewer teachers, we need to be left with the best," Sweeney said.
The current plan might just do that, Alexander said.
"I believe it's based on performance, if you're not going to be reappointed," he said. "If you're having a reduction in workforce (and use layoffs), it's seniority based. But we're not doing a reduction in force."
Teachers who are laid off have the right to be recalled if the budget picture improves. Nonreappointed teachers have no such right.
Alexander said trimming staff numbers by not reappointing some nontenured teachers would leave the district with a higher-quality teacher force, compared to using layoffs and being forced to respect seniority and certification rules.
"I believe it would," he said. "But it's also unnerving, because we're letting go some wonderful, wonderful people. I hope the state comes back with more money and lets us retain as many teachers as we possibly can."
But Vitalo said some teachers with poor evaluations are being retained while others with higher ratings are being let go.
Board member Pat Fagan, who previously voted for the staffing plan, said Friday that he now supported the union's request for an emergency meeting prior to the next scheduled meeting April 21, to address both the staff reductions and plummeting morale in the district.
"We need to sit down and have a meeting, find out exactly how much money we have to work with, and do what we can do to eliminate some of these drastic cuts we're making," Fagan said. "If we can save positions and we've got the money to do that, then we need to do it."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.