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Pasco School Board should loosen stance on raising property tax

A Pasco School Board majority, confronting up to $30 million worth of budget cuts, is looking to make matters worse by paying little heed to all available options. After three consecutive years of cutting, a board majority remains reluctant to approve new revenue sources. Members Frank Parker Jr., Kathryn Starkey, and Chairman Allen Altman told Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek they do not want to raise the property tax by 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Last year, the Legislature gave financially strapped school districts the ability to raise the quarter-mil tax with a super majority vote of board members. More than 40 school districts tapped the extra tax money, but Pasco chose not to do so.

Maintaining that position in 2010 is ill-advised. If board members steadfastly refuse to add the optional quarter-mil tax, they will add $5.6 million more to a budget deficit that already requires tens of millions of dollars in cuts due to flat state aid and declining revenue from a property tax roll that has lost a third of its value in just three years.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino is correctly recommending the board approve the quarter-mil levy to help soften the proposed cuts. But even with the new dollars, potential cuts include laying off hundreds of high school and middle school teachers and forcing their co-workers to pick up an extra class each day; unpaid furloughs; salary cuts; fewer summer work days for assistant principals; and scuttling middle school sports, driver's education and transportation for IB and career academy schools.

The School Board could not reach a consensus Tuesday and is to return next week to direct the staff how to proceed. The misgivings are understandable, but if board members can't make a decision now, how do they expect to identify $5.6 million in additional cuts?

Most of the proposed reductions carry far-reaching implications that will translate to: overworked middle and high school teachers; underutilization of highly desirable academic programs, and less productive classrooms with reduced learning on furlough days.

Killing busing to the IB programs at Land O'Lakes and Gulf high schools, for instance saves $90,000 but could hurt freshman and sophomore class enrollment. Those students are too young to drive themselves and asking parents to have the time and resources to drive as far as 50 miles round trip twice a day is an unrealistic expectation. Likewise, offering transportation for the career academies is intended to boost enrollment in the fledgling programs designed to enhance job-readiness for graduates. Cutting the transportation will save $700,000 but stifle growth in programs the district has spent the past several years assembling.

Those, however, are relatively paltry savings compared to the looming personnel decisions. Requiring secondary teachers to instruct all six periods, instead of five, is estimated to save $12 million. Failing to adopt the extra property tax means finding savings totaling nearly 50 percent more on top of that and there seems little elsewhere to look.

The School Board needs to remain flexible on the revenue side of the ledger. It can't cut its way to providing a high-quality education to Pasco's children.

Pasco School Board should loosen stance on raising property tax 05/05/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 8:31pm]
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