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School budget warning issued

If you're a public school student, the parent of one, or a school employee, today is more important than even report card day.

Today, Pinellas School Superintendent Howard Hinesley will announce a Draconian plan for reducing the district's staff for next year. He has no choice: Pinellas must cut $30-million to $40-million from a school budget that already had been pared last year.

"I don't want to mislead you," Hinesley told a group of student leaders Wednesday during a preview of today's announcement. "Every effort has been made to have the least impact on the students, but all the choices are bad."

Hinesley met with two groups of high school and middle school student leaders about the budget announcement.

He shared few specifics with the students but encouraged them to stay positive about school despite the cuts.

The district, which so far this year has cut $23.2-million from its $420-million budget, expects to be short another $30-million to $40-million for next year.

And one of the few places left to cut seems to be people.

Wednesday, Hinesley promised students that there would be cuts in central administration and in school-based administration. The district continues to look at ways to be more efficient and is considering a four-day work week in the summer to cut costs, he said.

He also has done everything he can to keep classes from getting larger, he told them.

The one thing that seems certain to be part of Hinesley's recommendation today is that high schools and possibly middle schools return to a six-period day instead of the current seven-period day. A six-period day in high school would reduce the district's need for teachers by about 200, and thus would save $7-million to $8-million.

The state used to give the districts extra money to offer an added class period each day. That money was cut last year, and Hinesley said few can afford to pay the cost on their own.

"I think I can honestly say that most school districts will be forced to the six-period day in the entire state," he said.

He assured students they still would be able to get in all the academic classes they need for college, including foreign languages. They may not, however, have as much chance for elective courses.

"The seven-period day gives you more flexibility," he said.

The district hopes to offer some early retirement options and other ideas to reduce the work force voluntarily. But Hinesley didn't rule out the possibility of layoffs.

Students wanted to know whether they could have a voice in deciding which teachers would go. No, Hinesley said.

Does this mean teachers will be teaching classes out of their area of expertise? Perhaps, Hinesley said, although every effort will be made to prevent that.

Will there be less money for supplies and teaching materials? No, Hinesley said. He expects schools to get at least as much money per student as they got this year. This year's allocation was not reduced.

If Pinellas goes to a six-period day, it will have to reduce its graduation requirements, now at 26 credits. State law requires 24 credits, but Pinellas and some other counties are pushing the Legislature to drop that to 22.

If students take only 24 classes in four years and must pass 24 to graduate, they have no leeway to make mistakes, Hinesley said.

The seven-period day came about several years ago in response to the RAISE (Raise Achievement In Secondary Education) bill of 1983. The law increased graduation requirements in Florida to the toughest in the country. The bill was intended to prepare every Florida high school student for college.

Critics have charged that the bill actually helped increase the dropout rate by forcing all students into one track.

One student asked Hinesley if a lower requirement would harm Pinellas students' chances of competing for college admission with students from other states. Hinesley said the reduction would bring Florida in line with what other states already do, so it shouldn't have any effect.

Several of the students asked if band, chorus, art, drama and sports would be cut. Hinesley said he considers music, art, vocational education and other such courses part of the essential curriculum for schools.

Physical education requirements may be curtailed, he said. (That drew a cheer from the middle school students.) And all sports programs and extracurricular activities are being studied, although those recommendations won't be made until March.

Hinesley urged the students to vent their frustrations over the budget cuts in a "positive way," such as writing letters to legislators or circulating petitions.

The underlying message was that demonstrations will not be permitted.

"We don't want huge demonstrations of kids shouting and picketing," Hinesley said. Administrators will act to shut down such displays and participants will be punished.

"It's not a constitutional issue when you're on school grounds," Hinesley said. "It's not because we don't believe you have a right to be heard, but we don't have the people to control it if it gets out of hand."

On the air

Superintendent Howard Hinesley's announcement of his proposed staff reductions will be broadcast several times today:

1:30 and 3 p.m. on UHF Ch. 14, Vision Cable Ch. 5 and Paragon Cable Ch. 14.

5 and 8 p.m. on UHF Ch. 14 and Vision Cable Ch. 5.

Before presenting his plan for staff reduction, the superintendent tells students of harsh reality.