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Schools issue 37 pink slips

Pasco's school budget cutbacks hit even harder this week when 37 teacher assistants and attendance workers were told they would not have a job next school year. On Wednesday and Thursday, 26 paraprofessional teacher assistants who work with children in kindergarten through third grade and 11 attendance assistants became the first school employees fired because of the budget shortfall.

School officials said they hoped to find jobs for them elsewhere in the school district.

"I was shocked," said Prudence Berardi, an attendance assistant for the past three years. "I really didn't think it would get this bad."

Like most of the district's attendance assistants, Berardi was notified by telephone by her boss. She worked at Ridgewood High, Deer Park Elementary, Seven Springs Elementary and Quail Hollow Elementary, where she tried to help truants and children whose attendance was slipping.

"I feel the need is there," she said. "I love the kids. I loved the whole role.

"What do I do? Turn my back on these kids because the county said, "See ya?' "

Sherron Bishop, a paraprofessional at Hudson Elementary for the past five years, was told Wednesday by her principal that her job was being eliminated next year.

"I don't know if the shock's worn off," she said. "In the beginning, we thought our duties might be in danger."

But, she said, in recent weeks she and other paraprofessionals were being trained for more responsibilities next school year. She thought her job was secure.

"I loved working with the children," she said. "It didn't pay much. But you get a lot of satisfaction when a child's face lights up."

Paraprofessionals generally help take the burden off the teachers, especially by tutoring children.

Assistant Superintendent Chuck Rushe said Thursday that the district's personnel department would notify the employees by mail that their positions are being eliminated. Rushe said he was hopeful that the employees would not be out of work for long.

"We're going to try to hire them within the system," Rushe said. "I feel pretty confident that these people will all get placed" in other positions.

The district is facing a possible $8.3-million budget shortfall if the school system operates as it did this year, and if the School Board honors the contract with the union and provides salary increases given when employees gain another year of experience. The district cannot operate at a deficit, so budget officials have devised a plan to cut positions and programs.

Schools Superintendent Tom Weightman has recommended that administrators forgo raises this year, that some sports teams play fewer games, and that some positions be eliminated.

Most of the positions that have been eliminated are vacant and simply will not be filled. But some of the cuts mean that people will lose their jobs.

Seniority evidently didn't count for much when the positions were eliminated.

Alice Toomey has been an attendance assistant in the Zephyrhills area for the past 11 years, and she has lost her job. She works at two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school in Zephyrhills, and has watched children grow up from elementary school to high school.

"I think I was a little surprised," she said. "I've seen a lot of kids and families coming through. I will miss the work."

"This is the first time we've had a whole group eliminated," said William Alexander, director of student services. "We've had funding run out for grants. But not this."

Alexander personally notified most of the attendance assistants Wednesday.

The proposals for cutbacks were presented to the School Board on Tuesday. The board was not asked to vote on the matter; avote will take place when the board votes on the entire budget. But now that the board is aware of the proposals, Weightman and his staff are building the budget with the cuts in mind.

So after the board meeting Tuesday, many of the cuts for next year began taking on a degree of reality.

"I am shook up, but there's nothing I can do about it," said Stephanie Buscetta, an attendance assistant for a year and a half. "I thought we had some reassurances.

"I'm going to be looking for something else, but there's nothing out there right now."