Friday, November 17, 2017

A lot goes unmentioned at school budget hearing


What if you had a public hearing and nobody bothered to be heard?

The now-familiar routine at Pasco School District budget hearings repeated itself Tuesday evening. The Pasco School Board approved a tentative budget totalling more than $1 billion with no discussion. This came after only one person spoke during the public hearing. A representative of the United School Employees of Pasco lamented a fifth year without salary increases and a second year of forced wage cuts via furloughs.

It might as well have been a heavy sign of resignation and a whispered "here we go again.''

Of course, maybe there are fewer people to comment because there are fewer people concerned about district finances. Over the past two years, the school district payroll has been reduced by more than 600 positions.

This is the fifth consecutive year the school board and administration had to balance a budget staring at a multimillion-dollar shortfall. This year's initial deficit was projected at nearly $24 million, a large portion of which was attributed to expiring federal stimulus dollars. Job cuts, furloughs and state permission to move around one-time revenue plugged the gap.

But here is what wasn't said at the public hearing:

• The budget is built upon revenues from a nearly 6 percent drop in property values coupled with a state-mandated reduction in the tax rate. In other words, the Republican Legislature authorized a tax cut while literacy coaches and other jobs are eliminated and teachers and staffers absorb salary cuts.

• The governor and legislators like to tout the $1 billion they added for education in the state budget. It is true. Per-pupil aid increased from the state this year.

What they don't mention is that the per-student allocation remains 13 percent lower than what it was five years ago. That's nearly a thousand bucks less per student from Tallahassee in 2012-13 than in 2007-08. Multiply that by tens of thousand of students and you begin to understand why the district's general revenue is off $56 million from five years ago.

• The previous town hall meetings in which school board members attempted to start a public dialogue over proposed budget cuts were fruitless. I only attended one town hall session, but "cut some high school reading coaches'' never surfaced as a public budget-cutting suggestion. In fact, the meeting at John Long Middle School in Wesley Chapel was notable for sparse public participation, but also a consensus among some parents that they would gladly pay more in fees or taxes to ensure quality education.

• This tentative budget is overshadowed by the political campaign for school superintendent. But, no matter who the voters pick to run the Pasco School District, there will be no magic transformation on school finances. That must start in Tallahassee.

• There always is a list of handy excuses to explain away the apathy. It's summer vacation. The Olympics are on television. It looked like it might rain. Gasoline at $3.39 cents per gallon just might not be worth wasting on a trip to the district headquarters in Land O'Lakes, if this budget already is a done deal. But, the school district should be concerned about this continued trend of limited public involvement. Hearing from taxpayers only when someone floats the idea to cut sports or band is hardly a broad public dialogue.

• Page 5 of the tentative budget document mentions the district's strategic plan including its three targeted areas. The nearly silent public hearing shows there is plenty of work to be done to achieve one of the objectives:

"Engaging families, communities and businesses.''

Just not on a Tuesday night in July when there is a billion-dollar budget to be voted upon.


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