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Pasco School Board missed chance to debate budget cuts

The Pasco School District is considering fighting red ink with pink slips. The expected grim news came Tuesday afternoon during a School Board workshop on the current budget, which already must be trimmed by $8.6-million. It could be cut by up to $15-million more as the state absorbs a $1.5-billion shortfall due to declining sales tax and other revenue sources. That could mean eliminating up to 440 jobs or 4.7 percent of people on the district payroll. Last year, the district employed more than 9,200 people to serve 65,500 children in 76 schools.

Besides the raw data, there was little substantive discussion at the workshop, with most of the heavy lifting expected to come at a Dec. 16 meeting. Considering the board asked for the workshop, it was a missed opportunity to lead. Some ideas mentioned, but not debated Tuesday, included eliminating spring football, cutting staff development, or shrinking custodial staffs.

Unfortunately, this is an all-too-frequent exercise for school boards in Florida as they try to balance the demands of educating children with financial constraints from a state that tries to do things on the cheap. Pasco already saved $14-million this year, mostly by not hiring teachers who would have been required by full implementation of the Class Size Amendment. The district also cut individual school budgets, reduced staff development, moved to a four-day work week for the summer, eliminated take-home vehicles, reduced travel, cut spending on sports and froze vacant positions.

Five years ago, the district cut $10.3-million by eliminating 94 jobs, shutting down the Energy & Marine Center and charging higher fees for athletics. Only Cathi Martin remains from that board, but her contribution Tuesday was limited to recounting conversations with teachers fearful of losing their jobs and health insurance benefits.

There are plenty of other ideas worthy of discussion, but they did not surface at the workshop. For starters, the board should cut their Tallahassee lobbyists. It's hard to rationalize spending money to monitor state legislation when the dominant education issue for the foreseeable future is saving money. On a larger scale, there was no discussion of shifting tax collections away from capital toward other expenses as Collier County did with voters' approval.

Students and parents are looking at the potential for larger classes, fewer athletic opportunities, paying more out-of-pocket expenses, and perhaps a change to the school day. Employees new to the district are looking at the possibility of a spot in the unemployment line.

They deserve timely answers. School Board member Allen Altman was correct when he said the board owed it to the public to develop its list of budget cuts instead of waiting on activity in Tallahassee. The board would be wise to follow his suggestion.

Pasco School Board missed chance to debate budget cuts 12/02/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 10:37pm]
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