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Pasco County school spending gets new scrutiny

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco school superintendent Heather Fiorentino figures 88 district employees need cell phones for the efficient operation of the schools.

She wants to send a handful of administrators to out-of-state conferences. And she wants to keep all school principals on 12-month contracts.

Ordinarily, these decisions would be routinely handled with little discussion.

But under a new state requirement, local school districts must spend some time poring over each expense in more detail.

When crafting the tight state budget this spring, some lawmakers wanted to make sure school districts focused their money on classrooms.

So they passed a law saying that if boards want to spend money on certain items — such as cell phones or employee contracts lasting longer than 10 months — they have to take specific action at a public meeting so people will be informed.

Land O'Lakes High teacher Pat Connolly confronted the Pasco School Board last month, asking when it would comply with that law. Fiorentino said the items would come soon.

On Tuesday, the School Board will consider each item. Not that it plans to change the way the district does business, though.

Board members interviewed said they expected to approve Fiorentino's requests for the 88 phones, the out-of-state travel and the 12-month principal contracts.

"If (principals) went to 10 months, the first month of school would be a fiasco," board Chairman Frank Parker said.

The employees who have cell phones need them because they deal with situations that either have them on the road or require quick response, board member Joanne Hurley noted.

"There are key, critical positions in the school district that we consider 24/7," Hurley said. "They have to be instantly available, and it doesn't make sense to deny them the equipment they need."

The district's top administrators, and all board members, have a district phone. The rest are assigned primarily to employees in construction, transportation, maintenance and food service.

As for out-of-state travel, eight trips are scheduled. Half are required as part of programs such as International Baccalaureate, one is part of the federal Head Start grant, and three are associated with training to improve the schools.

So long as such travel is minimal, board member Kathryn Starkey said, it should occur.

"I would always want to encourage learning best practices and other ways to deliver education," she said. "But in a time of very strict budgets, we can't do as much as we would like."

Parker said he considered the Legislature's requirement for board action little more than micromanagement. And he viewed it as unnecessary.

"We've already been where they wanted us to be," he said, noting that the board already had been approving each out-of-state travel request, for instance. "We're not doing anything that is not absolutely necessary."

Hurley and Starkey said they didn't really mind the lawmakers' effort.

"I've always thought that we didn't discuss enough issues publicly so everyone understands the things we do," Hurley said. "I see this as another opportunity for the board to provide oversight."

Starkey agreed.

"We've got to keep in mind, it's not our money," she said. "It's the public's money."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco County school spending gets new scrutiny 08/14/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 14, 2009 6:56pm]
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