Three months after Pinellas voters approved higher property taxes so teachers could get better pay, the school system is now actually considering a 2 percent pay cut. Welcome to the absurd world of public education in a state that put tax exemptions ahead of schoolchildren, where superintendent Clayton Wilcox is forced to choose among budgetary options that are bad and worse.
On Tuesday, the School Board will take another look at how to plug the $43-million hole the state Legislature has blown in the district's budget. Even after eliminating 147 jobs, reassigning 170 employees, canceling numerous private contracts, closing schools and adopting belt-tightening measures throughout the operation, Wilcox came up $11-million short. That's the amount he would make up through a 2 percent pay cut for 14,000 teachers and employees and a 3 to 6 percent cut for 2,000 maintenance, transportation and school police personnel.
No good alternatives exist, but board members are right to ask for some answers. A pay freeze is damaging enough, but pay cuts send a chilling message to current and prospective teachers. They also undermine the will of local voters. Those voters can certainly take out their disgust in legislative elections this fall, but the district has to find budgetary solutions now.
The level of the district's health insurance subsidy is one area to consider, though any reductions would also impact the take-home pay of employees. Transportation is another, and board members should take a new look at the expanded busing options they previously approved without knowing the budget impacts.
One other possible source, to be considered with great care, is the referendum money itself. The district in the past has committed 80 percent of the special tax to teacher salaries, but there is nothing sacrosanct about the formula. The other 20 percent, roughly $7.5-million, has gone to arts and technology purchases that might be trimmed.
Board members have asked their attorney for legal options, but they should instead be consulting the referendum leaders and the citizens task force. Would the people who fought for the referendum support a change in the formula, given the budget crisis?
Pay cuts are a terrible idea, though it is not clear whether this stingy Legislature has left Pinellas schools with any realistic options.