The ideas put forth by the Pinellas Education Foundation for saving money in the fiscally strapped Pinellas County schools are a breath of fresh air. Unencumbered by loyalties or legacies, the foundation's business-savvy volunteers have provided an impressively detailed list for saving millions of dollars in the district on everything from maintenance to health care. Superintendent John Stewart, along with the School Board, should welcome the interest and seriously consider each recommendation. This is the kind of community involvement that government institutions should embrace.
The foundation's report is striking in its specificity. Over the course of the past year, committees staffed by volunteers — many of them high-profile community leaders — have scoured six areas of the school district's operations to glean potential cost savings. Many suggestions, foundation chairman Craig Sher noted, were recommendations of district employees that for whatever reason, political or otherwise, had not been embraced in the past.
Two obvious, multimillion-dollar savers the district should consider immediately: self-financing its health care plan as other districts and large employers do, saving an estimated $12.7 million in just the first year that would normally be paid to an insurer; and changing district thermostats from 73 degrees to 76 degrees, cutting cooling costs by an estimated 5 percent or $1.3 million annually.
Other worthy ideas: modernizing the district's paper-centric purchasing system, decentralizing its maintenance operations, selling surplus real estate, eliminating portable classrooms in a district with too much capacity, and reducing school start times from three to two to greatly improve busing efficiencies.
That's not to suggest that all the foundation's recommendations are easy or should be accepted wholesale. For example, a recommendation to stop buying buses with air conditioning is a hard sell in a district accustomed to them. But it might make sense to implement rules about when the air conditioning is utilized to save on fuel.
What Stewart and the School Board must not allow — particularly in a year when voters will decide whether to extend an optional school property tax — is to let these recommendations gather dust on a shelf. Every dollar saved is another that can be invested in the classroom, benefitting students and the community's future. That is the best incentive of all.