More than 900 staff positions, including 572 teachers jobs, would be eliminated next year under an unprecedented budget reduction plan announced by Pinellas County school Superintendent Howard Hinesley.
The plan also proposes returning middle schools and high schools to six class periods a day instead of the current seven, increasing each class by two pupils in elementary school and cutting staff at every level.
Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teacher Association, said it would be the first time since 1933 that the county laid off teachers.
"Anyone who takes any delight in this type of budget reduction is a sadist," Moore said.
The proposal announced Thursday cuts $32.1-million from the district's budget and reduces the number of teachers by nearly 5 percent.
And that may not be all. Hinesley said his staff originally wanted him to trim $35-million. But, "We got to the point where we decided to take a little risk and hope $32-million was enough."
He said he still isn't sure where to find money for raises or for higher utility costs and other expenses driven up by inflation.
In March he will make recommendations for financing sports programs and other extracurricular activities.
Hinesley said the school district has cut fat and now is into muscle. "I don't believe we've gotten to the marrow yet," he said.
The proposed staff cuts, to be considered by the School Board next week, would not take effect until next school year. Hinesley said he is announcing his proposal now so his staff has time to adequately plan for the reductions.
Hinesley, asked if the planned cuts were a smokescreen to get more money from the Legislature, said that he wants lawmakers to know how serious the situation but that the announcement is no ruse.
"Nobody in their right mind would come out with this if they were posturing," he said.
If more money than expected becomes available, Hinesley said he would recommend reducing the size of elementary classes back to their current level. Now, the teacher-pupil ratio is 1:23 for kindergarten through third grade and 1:28 for fourth and fifth grade.
He won't recommend any of the other cuts be reinstated, though, even if the state says this spring the economy is picking up.
Pinellas learned a hard lesson in that regard last year, he said.
In May, it looked as if 350 teachers would be cut. Then the state announced money would be available after all, so 350 teachers were hired for fall. Then the state didn't have the money to give. In October, Pinellas had to make major adjustments and cut more than $16-million from its budget after school had started.
That will not happen again, Hinesley said. "The recommendations today more than likely will end up being permanent."
There was anger and sadness as teachers gathered around televisions to watch the announcement.
Hinesley, too, was grim-faced as he made the announcements on cable television and on the school system's television station, apologizing for the severity of the cuts.
"It is extremely sad to me that we have to make these deductions at this time," he said. "The past several months have been very difficult for me, as they have been for you. I regret that we have had to make these decisions."
Hinesley said he hopes no one will be fired. He hopes the cuts can be absorbed by attrition, some early retirement incentives, leaves and other measures.
How realistic is that?
"We see it as a challenge," he said. "It has a lot to do with whether we can muster the resources for an early retirement incentive offered on a one-time basis."
Moore, of the teachers union, said he too is hopeful that few if any people will be unemployed. Normal attrition each year is 150 to 200 teachers, he said.
Administrators not specifically named in Hinesley's proposal and teachers and other staff members should know by May if they are personally affected by the cuts.
Pinellas hasn't laid off teachers since 1933 and doesn't have a policy for deciding who goes in a layoff. That policy will have to be negotiated between the school district and the union.
Hinesley said he hopes staff reductions will not be made simply based on seniority. He said he wants to be sure the number of women and minorities remains balanced in schools and to try to ensure that teachers are teaching subjects that are their specialties.
The first teachers to go would be the "provisional" teachers, the 168 long-term substitutes who have been working without contracts. Administrators displaced by the cuts would go back to the classroom at teachers pay.
The only current programs eliminated under Hinesley's recommendation are elementary band, which isn't in all schools, the eight traveling strings teachers who teach a few students in several schools, and elementary foreign language, which is in five or six schools.
Going to a six-period day reduces the need for teachers by 199 in middle school and 170 in high school. Increasing class size in elementary schools reduces the need for teachers by 137.
SCHOOL Q & A
Why is Pinellas announcing these cuts now?
The school system always decides in February its staff for the next school year. Hinesley decided to stick with the normal schedule, even though it isn't known how much money the system will get from Tallahassee. He thinks it is better to plan for the worst now rather than rush decisions later.
Why can't the school system just transfer money from its $170-plus-million capital outlay fund to cover the cuts?
State law prohibits schools from using money they receive from a tax for school construction and renovation for operating expenses.
Will reducing to six class periods a day and possibly cutting graduation requirements to 22 credits put Florida behind other states academically?
No. According to the U.S. Education Department, the average number of credit courses offered per day in high schools is six. The average number of credits needed for graduation is 19}. Florida now requires 24 credits for graduation; Pinellas requires 26.
How will the six-period day affect the elective course offerings in high schools?
That isn't clear yet. Hinesley said he expects to reduce the physical education requirement from two credits to one to give students more time for elective courses. Otherwise, the length of class periods and what will be offered in which schools will be decided later.
What can be done about these cuts?
Hinesley's recommendation is to write your state legislator. If you want to talk to the Pinellas County School Board about the proposal, you can do so at its meeting Wednesday at 9 a.m. at 1960 E Druid Road in Clearwater.
_ WILMA NORTON