LAND O'LAKES — Citing an anticipated $23 million budget shortfall, Pasco County schools superintendent Kurt Browning announced Thursday he plans to eliminate all school media specialist and literacy coach positions next school year.
"We plan to have one full-time school media technology assistant at each school to manage the media centers moving forward," Browning said in a podcast aired for district staff before morning classes began Thursday. "Media specialists and K-12 literacy coaches almost all are certified teachers. We need highly qualified teachers in our classrooms teaching kids."
Browning also said he would cut 20 special education staffing compliance jobs and ESOL resource teacher jobs, several adult education administrative and clerical positions, and jobs deemed in excess after the temporary closure of Shady Hills and Quail Hollow elementary schools. All told, the reductions would affect more than 100 positions.
If approved by the School Board in May, the changes would go into effect when the new school year starts in the fall.
Displaced employees would be reassigned to vacant jobs within the district if possible. The district has frozen most hiring, to maintain as many vacancies as it can leading up to next year's job allocations.
The district projects the job cuts would save about $5.6 million in annual spending.
"I cannot emphasize enough that my goal is to direct all of our attention to doing what is best for the students. Unfortunately, that means that some adults will not be pleased with me," Browning said in the podcast.
"However, if we all are in this for the kids, we all must put aside our natural tendencies to resist change," he continued. "I ask you to keep open minds. And, don't be afraid to tell me you disagree with my proposals. If you have other ideas or suggestions that you think will work better, please send me an email."
Several employees took him up on the invitation, and his email inbox began to fill shortly after 8 a.m.
Kathleen Witowski, a media and technology assistant at Deer Park Elementary School, noted that the district has slashed these support positions already over the past two years.
Secondary schools lost their literacy coaches in 2012. All schools had their media and technology specialist positions cut in half in 2011.
That has left a great deal of work in the hands of the assistants, Witowski wrote to Browning. She said she's capable of keeping the media center running, but doesn't have the same training as the specialists.
"How much more do you expect the assistants to do given our current rate of compensation? I (and other assistants) will now have even more responsibility for under $17,000 a year," she wrote.
Suzanne Keim, media specialist at John Long Middle, wrote that she was disheartened by the decision, and called it a "very sad day for our students."
Tisha Newton, a teacher of the gifted at Mittye P. Locke Elementary, was even more stark.
"I am disappointed," she wrote to Browning. "Are we really doing what is best for our kids? No media specialist period. … We are already running on bare minimal. Why are we not looking at other positions versus positions that directly positively impact students?"
She also sent Browning a link to a report showing the positive influence of media specialists on student education.
Amelia Larson, the assistant superintendent for student achievement, said the administration had only a series of bad choices to make in considering budget cuts. Funding per student remains lower than it was in 2005-06. Most of the budget is wrapped up in salaries and benefits, she said. So the district is looking for ways to mitigate the cuts by putting qualified teachers back into classrooms and then changing the way it provides services to schools.
"We want to create a more integrated system where people cross over in their areas of experience," Larson said. "We are not going to have the same number of adults because we can't afford it. … We have to use our teacher leaders in a better way."
Teachers with expertise will have to share their knowledge with their colleagues and help them best meet student needs, she said. The district also plans to create a set of experts serving regions of schools to provide assistance and support to the schools, she added.
"This is the right time to start looking at how do we do things differently," Larson said.
The news struck hard in schools, where there had been rumblings of pending job cuts but no specific details before the podcast.
At Oakstead Elementary, staff members shed tears on hearing the superintendent's announcement, principal Tammy Kimpland said.
"Those people do a lot for our school," said Kimpland, who has two literacy coaches and one media specialist on staff. "Who will pick up all those pieces? Honestly, I don't think we know."
She said she asked her staff to have faith as the district develops and implements its new vision for academic achievement: "Sometimes, tough decisions have to be made."
The United School Employees of Pasco has in the past recommended eliminating some academic coaching positions and putting those people back into classrooms.
But USEP president Lynne Webb made clear that she thought Browning's move to eliminate media specialists went too far.
"Media specialists are not clerks. They are invaluable resources to classroom teachers," Webb said, noting that they will play a key role in the transition to Common Core standards. "I believe this is the wrong move."