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Schools' next cuts will be deeper

Alert: Coming this week, the announcement of massive cuts in the Pinellas schools budget for next year.

You think previous cuts in education spending were hard. Just wait. These cuts are expected to be more drastic than any in recent memory.

Any way you look at it, the school budget outlook is bleak. Sure, you say, you have heard that song before. Well, hear this:

Unless there is some miracle, and nobody expects one, Pinellas schools will have between $30-million and $40-million less to work with next year than they had after this year's budget cuts.

So they'll cut a few administrators or eliminate a few sports programs, you think. That should do it, right?

Wrong.

Cutting $40-million _ 9.5 percent of the school's operating budget _ could change drastically the way schools do business. That's because reserves were depleted last year, as were many programs.

"People need to know the seriousness of this," Superintendent Howard Hinesley said last week. "This is going to have long-lasting impact."

The specifics of the superintendent's recommendations won't be made public until Thursday, and the School Board won't vote on them until Feb. 25, but Hinesley has said that the staff is looking at every aspect of the school system.

That includes possibly cutting money for enrichment programs that the Science Center of Pinellas County, area nature centers and the Florida Orchestra provide in conjunction with schools. These are cost-saving measures never contemplated before.

But even these savings would be a drop in the bucket. What would it take to cut $40-million from the budget?

Increasing each class size by nine more students _ for an average of more than 30 in kindergarten through third grade and close to 40 in all other levels _ and thereby eliminating 1,065 teachers. Or cutting the school year by almost four weeks. Hinesley used these examples at an October meeting not as his recommendations, but to show the enormity of the problem.

These days, Hinesley is looking at everything as a possible way to cut money. Ideas include the number of students who will be assigned to each class, at extracurricular programs, at cultural programs, at the number of administrators, at positions that don't teach children directly, at anything that could be considered non-essential.

Hinesley said Gov. Lawton Chiles' budget proposal is the best. And even it isn't very good. Chiles' proposal would give $5-million to schools to spend on things such as computers or books. That would give the district about $15-million more. Still, though, it would leave the district with a $25-million shortfall.

Such a large budget reduction is almost sure to affect jobs because 80 percent to 85 percent of all the money the school district spends in its operating budget is for salaries and benefits.

Teachers are worried. At recent meetings with Hinesley, many of the teachers' questions centered on whether they would have jobs next year.

For provisional teachers, those who have been working as full-time substitutes, the answer is probably not.

Outside groups that contract with the school system on extra services for students also are worried.

Hinesley has notified organizations such as the Science Center of Pinellas County, the Pinellas County Arts Council, area nature centers, American Stage and the Florida Orchestra that there likely will not be money to continue the enrichment programs that those groups offer in conjunction with the school system.

For the Science Center, eliminating the school program would cut about 20 percent of its overall budget.

"It will impact us because, right now, we handle about 20,000 children a year through that program," director Susan Gordon said. "We're hoping they will look kindly upon us."

The Florida Orchestra and the Pinellas County Arts Council have been aggressively seeking support for their programs and arts programs in general, though they don't know yet exactly what cuts will be made.

The Arts Council gets a grant of $35,148 from the school system to conduct the artists-in-residence program, which puts professional artists in schools to work with students.

"We're certainly concerned about our grant," said Judith Powers-Jones, executive director of the Arts Council, "but the primary concern is that those programs that are part of the regular curriculum, art teachers, music teachers, that touch students on an ongoing basis . . . may be in danger." They may not be, she added, "but I think that they are.

"The arts battle always has been uphill," she said. "When you know you've got wonderful programs in place and have had for a long time, it's real hard to think about losing them."

Katherine Holm, associate director of the Florida Orchestra, said she has a similar view. If the $54,411 the school system gives the orchestra for its youth concert series is lost, that will be hard enough.

But if music and arts education is reduced or eliminated, that's an entirely more serious matter, she said. "Our real concern is the future of our audiences and the future of our whole area we live and work in, our whole environment."

So far, except for efforts organized by PTAs, there has been little parental outcry about the potential cuts.

"I think a lot of parents in 1992 are struggling to make ends meet at home, and if their children make it to school on the school bus and do fairly well in grades, they're hoping for the best," said Ilona Siegel, president of the PTA at Garrison-Jones Elementary School in Dunedin. "I don't know what else we can do to get parents motivated to show more interest. . . . Unfortunately, if it doesn't directly affect your child, you don't pay attention."

Siegel said she sees no indication parents are pulling out of the public schools; in fact, one of the school district's concerns is that it will have thousands more children next year to educate with less money.

And students?

They are aware of the potential cuts because they hear teachers worrying aloud about whether they will be around next year.

Susy Saglio, a senior at Pinellas Park High School, said she and other students met recently with principal Alec Liem about the budget cuts.

"He told us some of our favorite teachers may be gone, and we need to deal with that," Saglio said. "He doesn't want us to get all upset and start walking out of class or anything like that."

She is a senior, though, and doesn't plan to attend a state university, so next year's cuts won't affect her directly.

Sophomore Jennifer Jakuvowski said she is worried that she won't be able to get the classes she needs to prepare for college.

"I'm in honors classes, and the classes can't get much larger. There's not any room," she said. "Teachers already have too many students. They already are having a hard time teaching us what we need to go to college."

As for School Board members, they are urging people to write and call legislators in Tallahassee, who can do something to bring more money into the district.

"They're telling us they've gotten three to five letters on budget cuts in the past two weeks," board member Corinne Freeman said last week. "People need to be in touch with the legislators immediately because they're the only ones who can do something."

Siegel of the PTA said she can't believe legislators don't know how people feel.

She asks how they can say they have forgotten the October rally in the Florida Suncoast Dome or the letters they have gotten in past months.

"It's an insult to parents and citizens in this state to have the Legislature saying they can't hear us," Siegel said. "Maybe they need a hearing aid or need to be in a different business."

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