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Budget cuts create administrative holes

Wayne McKnight knows he is one of the fortunate ones. Brad Finkbiner and Gary Kletius certainly are not.

And for Doug Smith and many others, long school days are about to get even longer.

Since the end of the 2002-03 school year, Pinellas County schools have eliminated 23 assistant principal positions due to state budget cuts, with 14 of the county's 16 public high schools falling under the knife. At a handful of those schools, the assistant principals in charge of athletics _ athletic directors _ have become victims.

This summer, schools are picking up the debris.

On the surface, athletes are not likely to feel any ill effects from reorganization in their schools' administrative offices, but they could at some point.

"This is a crucial area," county athletic director Walter Weller said. "There's a lot of behind-the-scenes work that takes place before kids ever get on the field.

"Athletic directors carry a multitude of hats. It is a tough situation when you lose an assistant principal who has been designated the assistant principal for athletics."

At Osceola, the county's smallest public high school, the allotment of four assistant principals has been pared to three. Finkbiner, the athletic director, had 17 years of service in the school system but had the least seniority, so he was thrown into a pool with other assistant principals scheduled to be reassigned.

When the dust settled, Finkbiner landed at Pinellas Park Middle School.

"I understand the situation the district was in. It's a tough decision," Finkbiner said. "The only thing I have a problem with is that Osceola's the smallest high school in the district and expected to provide as many extracurricular activities as every other high school in the district (with fewer assistant principals)."

Smith, the principal at Osceola, said he knew it would be unfair for the three remaining assistant principals to add Finkbiner's duties to already-full plates. Nor could athletic coordinator Gregg Zornes be expected to do it all. (All county schools have athletic coordinators who work in conjunction with athletic directors.)

So Smith decided to pitch in, assuming an estimated 25 percent of the athletic director duties along with everything else that goes with being a high school principal. Zornes will take the rest.

"I'm just going to have to make some decisions," Smith said. "The dilemma is how we prioritize things. If I've got a lot of different needs that I'm responding to, how do I decide which is more important? What is it that we attend to the most?"

Smith notes the focus in the governor's office is on FCAT scores and overall academic achievement and his job rides much more on those than if Warriors teams win district titles. Yet a school and the community benefit from what he calls "the athletic experiences."

With fewer administrators, however, experiences will be tougher to provide. Smith said Osceola teams' schedules will meet the minimum requirements set by the Florida High School Athletic Association and nothing more unless, perhaps, more road games can be scheduled.

Those do not require Osceola administrators to be on hand.

There also are numerous deadlines for various sports to be met during school years, and Smith conceded not all will be met.

"We'll find a way to do it," Smith said. "But I think there's going to be some issues where we're going to have people paying fines to the FHSAA because we miss certain things."

Other schools that have had their number of assistant principals reduced from five to four (only Northeast and Dixie Hollins were spared cuts) will feel a pinch as well.

So far, all schools besides Osceola will retain someone with the athletic director title, but that person still will have more responsibilities to make up for the assistant principal lost.

"It's going to be very difficult for an (assistant principal) to keep the duties he or she had and then to absorb this," Clearwater athletic coordinator Kathy Biddle said. "I don't know how they expect an (assistant principal) to do it."

At Clearwater, Steve Price is taking over the athletic director job for Kletius, who is going to Pinellas Park Middle. At Pinellas Park High, Jill Dileanis was reassigned within the school and Leslie Hopkins will assume the athletic director role.

Dana Newberry is the new athletic director at East Lake, replacing McKnight, who called himself a "lucky one" in being able to take the same job at Tarpon Springs. Former Tarpon athletic director Eric Zebley was moved to Carwise Middle.

"I fell into a golden situation because all I did was transfer from one high school to another," McKnight said. "I'm assuming pretty much all the same duties and responsibilities (as athletic director), but we will be picking up extra duties just by the nature of losing an administrator.

"It's part of being a team player."

Weller, however, said he still sees trouble for teams down the road where schools with overworked administrators could overlook details. Eligibility issues, for example, require plenty of legwork with background checks on students' grades and residences to meet standards for both the county and FHSAA.

And under the newly implemented school choice plan, some students might change schools multiple times, which could, in turn, raise eligibility questions.

"Eligibility is always crucial. I've been doing it for the past seven years, and it's not easy," said Weller, the former athletic director at Dixie. "If (administrators) have to wear so many hats, maybe they skim over the eligibility check. If a kid's found ineligible (later in a season), now we're talking forfeitures.

"When a team is a good team, I don't think a principal is going to want that kind of publicity with school choice. One little mistake yikes."