LAND O'LAKES — Tensions ran high Wednesday in Pasco County schools as the School Board blessed a plan to eliminate 513 positions without listing which ones would go.
"There's a lot of anxiety," Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, said after the board's budget workshop. "Nobody knows how this process will work."
The board had avoided layoffs over the past three years of budget cuts, trimming some positions through attrition but not resorting to pink slips. With the next budget year's shortfall approaching $55 million, though, such a move was inevitable, officials said, noting that salaries and benefits make up more than 80 percent of the district's operating budget.
"This has been extremely difficult," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said. "This is nothing that anyone wants to do. It's what we are being forced to do."
She stressed that the numbers of people losing jobs would be less than the total positions eliminated, as some employees might resign or retire. With the board's direction set, school and department administrators will analyze their needs and begin letting staff members know if their positions are in jeopardy within a week, Fiorentino said.
The planned job cuts still won't cover the district's entire projected shortfall, chief finance officer Olga Swinson told the board.
To get there, the board would have to use $10 million in capital funds to pay for property insurance and $11 million in federal "Edujobs" funds aimed at protecting school jobs. Even with that one-time funding, a $6 million gap remains.
To make up that amount, the staff recommended furloughs — four days for 12-month employees, and three days for everyone else. Combined with state pension changes, employees who remain are looking at pay cuts of 4.5 percent.
The news made board Chairwoman Joanne Hurley tear up.
"These are allocations. The actual people (cut) will be less," she said. "But it's still people we're talking about. It's still families."
"I think we all felt like we were coming to a funeral today," board member Cynthia Armstrong said during the workshop.
Vice Chairman Allen Altman noted the situation could get even worse. As in past years, the state could cut school funding even more in the middle of the budget year if revenues lag behind expectations, among other variables.
"I don't want us to walk out of here today and believe $55 million is the deal and here it is," Altman said. "Don't ignore contingencies."
The option presented to the board relied heavily on charging employees an added amount, between $50 and $100 monthly, for health insurance. Altman urged the administration and USEP officials to discuss the concept and reach agreement quickly, so the staff won't be surprised if the time comes.
"We need to be prepared," Altman said.
USEP negotiator Jim Ciadella replied that conversations would come over the summer, but "what commitments are going to be made on that, Mr. Altman, we don't know."
Because the pending budget plan still relies on one-time revenue sources, board members also made clear that cuts will continue into 2012-13 if the economy doesn't dramatically improve.
"It's $21 million we know of," board member Alison Crumbley said. "Is there anything we can do to get a step ahead next year . . . so that we don't have to fall off another cliff next year?"
Board member Steve Luikart said he wanted to continue exploring the option of a four-day school week, suggesting the savings could be much higher than the $3.2 million that staff has projected. Hurley asked the staff to look into transportation savings.
Altman asked whether changes to school schedules, such as a seven-period day, could generate savings.
Each also made clear they wanted whatever cuts come to have as limited an impact on learning as possible.
Fiorentino said she would attempt to make such recommendations, but stressed that completely avoiding things that affect students and classrooms is no longer possible.
Elementary schools will still offer art, music and physical education, for instance, but the amount will be scaled back, she said. The district might still offer driver's education, but it might be online only with the driving portion through paid adult programs.
Class sizes might grow, the number of guidance counselors and other service professionals might shrink.
"This is the first time doing this knowing it has a direct impact on students as well as staff," Hurley said. "That's what is left after three years of this."
Some of the cuts, such as furloughs, remain subject to negotiation. Webb said she hoped to get information soon from the district office so she can understand the facts behind the recommendation, as well as the proposed process to make it happen.
"Unfortunately for them, they can't do it unilaterally," she said. "If they want the union on board, they need to be getting the union all the information they're using."
Otherwise, the already tense situation could get even more so.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.