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Hernando school superintendent Wayne Alexander wants focus to be on people

Wayne Alexander couldn't wait to come to Florida.

He had worked in Sarasota in the early 1990s and remembered that community's wealth and resources for public schools. Florida doesn't pay its teachers well, but it's got other educational opportunities.

Math coaches, reading coaches, assessment teachers.

So down from the North he came and on his first day as superintendent of the Hernando County School District in July 2007, the then-finance director, Deborah Bruggink, popped the balloon, or more accurately, showed him the cash drawer.

"The day I got here, the CFO starts talking to me about cuts,'' Alexander said.

And the talk has yet to stop. More than $3 million that July to cover a state revenue shortfall. Then $19 million and now $22 million more. Declining property values, reduced sales tax collections, less money from the state all contributing to the $46 million squeeze. That is 23 percent less money than when Alexander arrived. Put another way, it equals $2,000 less to educate each of the 23,000 children in the district.

"All the extra stuff,'' says Alexander, "wiped out.''

A staff allocation of 3,216 full- and part-time employees could be cut by as much as 7 percent. Math coaches, reading coaches, reading teachers, driver's education teachers, assessment teachers, media specialists, teachers for ESOL (students to whom English is a second language) are staring at job reductions. Negotiations to freeze and possibly cut salaries for the remaining employees are likely.

Some think the federal economic stimulus package will be an answer. Don't count on it. The stimulus, said Alexander, "is about buying stuff. I don't need stuff. I need people — people working with kids.''

Alexander's comments came in an hourlong interview with Times journalists Wednesday morning that focused heavily on school economics. Among the highlights:

• The $300,000 spent annually on middle school sports would have been better budgeted years ago on after-school programs that would have reached an audience of 12- to 14-year-old children stretching beyond athletes, he said. It could help fill idle time for students already challenged by blossoming hormones and changing academics. The school board, however, declined to add middle school sports to its list of approved budge cuts.

• Safety is a priority and the board is not yet willing to stop the practice of busing children who live within 2 miles of their schools even with a projected cost savings of $1.9 million.

Left unsaid was how counterproductive such a cut would be given the dearth of sidewalks along Hernando County roads, the death of 13-year-old Kaitlyn Harper who was hit by a truck and killed in September while walking in the early morning darkness to a bus stop, and the safety measures that followed including working with Hernando County to install lights at a dozen heavily used bus stops.

• A suggestion from County Commissioner Jim Adkins to place a moratorium on impact fees, if approved, is one more negative impact for the district that already collects fees "drastically under what we should be.''

Fourteen months ago, a consultant recommended increasing the school impact fees on new-home construction from $4,266 to $10,000. The proposal never was acted upon.

• There will be fewer people working for the Hernando School District when the next budget is approved even with a push to "maintain the sanctity of the classroom.''

''I'm done practicing magic,'' said Alexander. "It has to be people.''

• He is pleased with 95 percent of his personnel moves that shifted a third of the district's principals to new schools, created some mid-level curriculum staff and cut some senior-level positions. More changes will coming.

Though the moves garnered him public criticism, Alexander said some of the transferred employees thanked him afterward for giving them a needed kick in the behind.

• Alexander acknowledged making mistakes. Ask asked to identify one, he said he is too open and candid with the press. "I'm honest to a fault.''

Transparency shouldn't be discouraged. Alexander should think of his press clippings the same way some of his administrators considered their transfers.

A needed kick in the behind.

Hernando school superintendent Wayne Alexander wants focus to be on people 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 12:09pm]
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