LAND O'LAKES — The budget picture continues to look less bleak for Pasco schools as the district finance team refines its projections.
After factoring in such items as retirements and frozen positions, the district's shortfall for the coming year appears to be down to $5 million, superintendent Heather Fiorentino told a budget advisory committee on Monday.
"It looks a whole lot better than $45 million a month ago," Fiorentino said.
She expected an early retirement incentive might help close the remainder of the hole, if one can be negotiated by summer.
Still, the district is not out of the woods, Fiorentino cautioned the committee.
She predicted that the state will cut another $9 million or so in funding to the district before the end of the year, forcing another round of spending reductions.
That's when some tougher choices will have to be made.
United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb worried that the district will have little choice than to cut into the labor pool, as that's where it spends nearly 85 percent of its general operating money.
"A lot of the (operating) efficiencies have already been put into place," Webb observed. "If maintaining jobs is still a priority, sacrifices may need to be made in other ways."
Special education teacher on assignment Glennda McAllister said she would take one unpaid day if necessary to avoid having workers lose their jobs or health insurance benefits.
"Whatever we can do to let that medical remain, (teachers) are interested in that," added Richey Elementary first-grade teacher Sharon Pelchat.
Fiorentino said the idea of unpaid days — two for administrators, one for everyone else — is on the table if a second round of cuts is required. It would save about $1.9 million.
Other items up for discussion include delaying the purchase of textbooks, cutting the athletics budget without cutting sports programs, seeking a local tax referendum and finding more outside grants to pay for some positions.
Already, finance director Olga Swinson said, the district knows it will not be able to pay for all its employee positions relying solely on state and local tax revenue. It will need the $23 million in federal stimulus funds slated for Pasco schools in order to maintain its existing operations.
To make that case, though, the district must demonstrate exactly how many jobs it would lose without the money. During its meeting today, the School Board is scheduled to review its teacher allocation plans for its state funding. Many positions are not in that paperwork.
Fiorentino told the committee not to worry, and that her goal is to avoid layoffs. It's just that the district must justify why it needs the federal stimulus money to save or create jobs.
"Please keep the faith and work with me," she told the group, urging them to stop the rumors that layoffs are imminent. "It's going to be a long summer. We are working to enhance education and create and save jobs."
No schools closing
The district has other ideas big and small in the works.
Among them, it plans to begin running public service announcements on television and radio to encourage private school families to return to the free public school system. It intends to look more closely at job sharing, and will urge employees to turn off all computers and printers each night.
Some other ideas are now off the table, most notably that of closing schools.
There had been talk of shutting the two alternative schools, Schwettman and Irvin, and also of transferring children from Quail Hollow Elementary to Double Branch Elementary for a lengthy renovation of Quail Hollow.
"Closing the schools was absolutely on the table. That was thoroughly talked about," Fiorentino said. "But we didn't really find that to be the savings or the right thing to do."
The plans to fix up Quail Hollow are on the back burner. And rather than close the alternative schools, she said, the district will be "enhancing the model."
After the committee meeting, Fiorentino and Swinson headed to a separate office to work on the budget presentation they will make to the board this morning.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.