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Parents, others oblige as school districts seek help cutting budgets

As Florida school districts struggle to dig out of a deepening financial hole, the people who run them are embracing a new philosophy:

It takes a village to cut the budget.

Traditionally, administrators and school boards comb district budgets for cuts, then bring the results to public hearings — a process that leaves some feeling as if they're being consulted after the fact.

But this year's shortfalls are so large and the options so distasteful that districts are increasingly engaging their staffs and the public on the front end.

The message: We've gone at it the best way we know how. Why don't you take a stab at it?

Whether it's asking for budget-cutting ideas or for support in storming the Capitol over funding shortages, they've sought help. And teachers, parents and regular citizens have been only too happy to oblige.

Across the state, suggestions are pouring in by the thousands — from the very doable (cut administrative costs and stop rehiring retired employees at high salaries) to the very difficult (go to four-day workweeks and eliminate sports) to the outrageous (do away with school buses and homeschool everyone).

By Friday, just two days after Pinellas officials began to survey district employees for savings ideas, more than 1,500 staffers had weighed in with more than 9,000 suggestions.

In Hillsborough last month, about 12,000 employees — nearly half of the district's work force — responded to a survey about the budget.

Pasco County superintendent Heather Fiorentino plans to convene a budget review committee to get a school-level view of where she should cut.

Nearly 500 suggestions have come to Brevard County school officials in recent months, including three on Friday, said district spokeswoman Christine Davis. She expects a packed house for a Feb. 23 town hall meeting during which people will have a chance to grill their legislators.

How does she know? Some have called to ask whether there's enough room in the parking lot for buses.

Recently, after public pressure caused the Orange County School Board to overturn a money-saving schedule change for middle and high schools, superintendent Ron Blocker set up a "budget study committee" composed of parents, community leaders and financial professionals. The panel's job: to assess the impact of other budget-cutting ideas.

"So the whole burden just doesn't weigh on us. It weighs on the taxpayers as well," said district spokeswoman Shari Bobinski.

This week the Times' education blog, the Gradebook, followed up on Pinellas' employee survey by asking the public for ideas on the budget. Scores of readers chimed in.

They complained of what appeared to be wasteful spending on computers and printed materials that many never use or see. They railed against what they described as excessive teacher training and unnecessary textbook purchases.

They said preapproved vendors charged high prices for supplies. They advocated the end of hot lunches, the reduction of travel and the dismissal of school psychologists and reading coaches and specialists of all kinds.

A large number said the district must cut administrative costs.

"What do they DO? They earn 6 figures for WHAT?" one reader wrote. "I am a teacher, and I cannot imagine what they do."

They do a lot, wrote someone dubbed "Secretary," one of a handful of readers who pushed back against ideas they considered rash or ill conceived, such as closing district headquarters.

The folks there handle payroll, purchasing, accounting, hiring, printing, background checks, curriculum, health insurance and on and on, "Secretary" wrote, adding, "If we close down the system CANNOT operate!!!"

Reading with a mixture of amusement and interest was Rosemary Vieira of Palm Harbor, whose kids' elementary school was chosen for closure in the first round of budget cuts.

She says an audit of the district's financial and management practices would be a good first step to shed light on where the fat is.

"I feel like if they did something like that, they would know where they're coming from much better than they do — and we would know," said Vieira, whose new pastime is scouring the district budget.

"I'm not an accountant, but I'm looking at numbers, and it doesn't seem to be making a lot of sense."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.

.Fast facts

Where to cut?

Pinellas and other school districts have asked the public to weigh in with budget-cutting ideas. Here's a sampling, along with their chances of being implemented.

DOABLE/UNDER

CONSIDERATION

• Cut administrative costs

• Limit textbook purchases

• Reduce construction costs

• Furloughs

POLITICALLY DIFFICULT

• Go to a four-day workweek

• Eliminate sports

IMPLAUSIBLE/

VIOLATES STATE LAW

• Eliminate busing

• Eliminate the FCAT

• Close district headquarters

Join the discussion

See the Gradebook, the Times' education blog, for an online discussion about how to cut the Pinellas schools budget. Go to blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Parents, others oblige as school districts seek help cutting budgets 02/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 10:51pm]
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