Pasco School Board member Frank Parker's swan song carries a familiar harmony. Parker, a certified public accountant, is not seeking re-election after a four-year term. This week, he issued a dire warning to his fellow board members: Balancing the upcoming school budget with $5 million in one-time revenue provides only temporary relief and exacerbates what is to come in 2011.
''Next year is going to be beyond ugly,'' Parker said.
Nobody argued. It is a refrain that has ricocheted around Tallahassee, where legislators relied on federal help to balance the state budget for two consecutive years. Those federal stimulus dollars will disappear next year and with them will go $23 million that helped the Pasco County School District protect 411 jobs.
In the meantime, board members attempted to minimize layoffs for the coming year while sparing middle and high school teachers a 20 percent increase in their workload. Though no final decisions have been made, the board retreated from a plan to save $12 million by eliminating as many as 330 teaching jobs and forcing secondary school teachers to teach six periods each day instead of five.
It is a welcome reprieve for educators who haven't received previously negotiated raises for the past two years, but it requires significant cuts elsewhere as the district seeks to close a projected $28 million shortfall. The board leaned toward a plan using money that had been set aside for construction and learning materials; eliminating the equivalent of 78 teaching positions (one per school); cutting two jobs at the district headquarters; offering early-retirement incentives; furloughing employees; and charging workers more for health and dental insurance.
Parker's foresight notwithstanding, it would have been just as accurate to point out the board fumbled an opportunity last year to lessen the budget crunch when it declined to raise the property tax rate by 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. That reluctance remained in place this week until the favored budget cuts still left a $7 million hole in the coming spending plan.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino also reinforced the realization that the Legislature is expecting school boards to levy the tax rate, which could generate up to $6 million locally. Requiring local elected officials to make the difficult political decisions has been standard operating procedure in Tallahassee for years, but this time the board would be wise to follow the Legislature's expectations.
Forgoing new revenue simply means millions of dollars worth of additional cuts or a deeper and more reckless dip into the construction account. The district already lacks sufficient dollars to build a new elementary school projected for Hudson in three years, to adequately maintain existing school buildings and to expedite the pace of technology upgrades at older schools. The board is smart to resist spending even more of its savings for political expediency.