The Pinellas School Board will consider $55 million in painful spending cuts Thursday that include eliminating 400 positions, reducing middle school counselors and increasing class sizes in some courses. While the proposal limits the impact on most classrooms, it is shortsighted and should be more rigorous in its approach toward cutting busing costs, reducing administrative expenses and eliminating more jobs. As difficult as the choices are, this is a large bandage on a district that has yet to face the long-term consequences of less state money, declining property tax revenue and fewer students.
Financial planning is not Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen's strongest skill, but in this case it's the School Board that is refusing to cast the tough votes and risk angering parents. Janssen proposed cutting millions from busing, and so far the most the board can stomach is less than $1 million. Pinellas has spent too much on busing since the days of the flawed school choice system, and it's time to make significant cuts even if it puts more burden on families that choose to place their children outside their zoned schools. Imagine what the district could do with the $9 million it spends now on busing students beyond what state law requires.
Yet the School Board is poised to essentially cover optional busing costs by forcing teachers to take three days of unpaid furloughs and administrators to take seven. That would come on top of an effective 3 percent pay cut imposed by Gov. Rick Scott and Legislature when they agreed to require public employees to contribute that amount to their pensions. And Pinellas hopes to save $5 million by forcing teachers and staff members to pay more for their health insurance as part of union negotiations. Public employees should contribute to their pension plans, and both public and private workers are paying more for health insurance. But add furloughs to the mix, and the cumulative effect is too much.
Pinellas is not alone in the debate over temporary furloughs vs. job eliminations. Hillsborough, through smart long-term planning, expects to be able to avoid both layoffs and furloughs. But Pasco is laying off more than 300 teachers and negotiating on a plan to furlough teachers for three days. Hernando will consider furloughs and job cuts next month.
Furloughs are a temporary answer to a cash crunch that is expected to worsen. Implementing the full Pinellas furlough plan would save $7.7 million in 2011-12. But the district already expects to start 2012-13 another $20 million in the hole, on top of the cuts and furloughs that will be considered Thursday. Will the answer next year be more furloughs on top of furloughs?
Better to start making tough decisions now that will serve the district's long-term interests and protect the classroom and the teacher and the students inside it. While Janssen has made progress in reducing administrative costs, more can be done. The School Board also should take a tougher look at the 200 teaching positions that are outside the classroom. And board members should take the hard vote and explain to families why the district can no longer afford to bus their children all over the county. If the public school work force must get smaller so that teachers in the classroom can earn a decent living and not face furloughs and cutbacks year after year, that is a fair trade.