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Cut my pay, not class, teacher asks

Ken Ford has been teaching students at the Energy and Marine Center for 24 years. He's not ready to give up now.

Told that the Pasco County School District-run center will close for the year because of budgetary issues, Ford has offered to take a $20,000 pay cut to keep even a skeletal version of the program running during the budget crisis.

He's desperately seeking an outside agency willing to put forward the remaining $30,000 just to keep the program's pulse alive as he takes the center's lessons on the road to schools. The only expense would be his salary, he said.

"I'd work it for nothing if I could afford to work it for nothing," he said.

The Pasco County School Board voted unanimously two weeks ago to temporarily close the 29-year-old science education field trip center to save $295,000 toward $10.3-million in needed cuts.

As a veteran teacher, Ford will be offered the chance to fill another, regular classroom teaching position in the district at his full salary of about $51,800.

But Ford said he'd like to take a substantial pay cut instead _ to a starting teacher's salary _ if it would help increase chances he can take the program on the road this fall to classrooms across the county. He said he could run it at no other cost to the system.

"I wouldn't even charge mileage," he said.

Pasco County superintendent John Long said that he appreciates Ford's commitment to the hands-on science program but said that the district is still not in a position to retain a nonclassroom position, even at a $20,000 discount.

There may also be some legal issues with reducing an employee's contractual pay, he said.

While the center was among cuts that also included eliminating close to 100 nonteaching positions, the district is scrambling to hire about 400 teachers before the fall due to a new state mandate to lower class sizes. The district is also expecting to have to find another $500,000 to cut before the 2003-04 budget is finalized in the coming months.

"I feel bad for Mr. Ford because I really appreciate what he's trying to do," Long said, before saying that the teacher's experience would also be essential to the classroom. "He can have as much impact with 1,000 kids in a middle school."

For his part, EMC Program Manager Gary Perkins said he's not focusing so much on next year as he is seeking long-term solutions to keeping the center open after the temporary 2003-04 closure.

"Whether it's an elementary facility, or whether it's a high school facility, or whether it's a field trip site, as it has been. Whether, whether, whether," Perkins said, listing some of the ideas floating around to keep the center alive full time. "We've got traditions _ we've always had fourth-grade kids out here, but the world's changed since 1974."

Perkins said he's working with district office administrators to examine long-term possibilities. And Long said he intends to reopen the center when funding becomes available again.

But, for his part, Ford said he's afraid to just give up on the program even temporarily.

"I have a feeling if I just let it go, it'll go," the teacher said Tuesday after guiding about 25 kindergarten through second-grade kids on a make-believe journey to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

For years, Ford has spent his summers taking some of EMC's science lessons on the road to the children enrolled in Pasco Learning and Activities Centers for Enrichment, a summertime and after-school child-care program run by the district.

It is the same sort of thing he's proposing doing this school year and something he did in school years past when on-site construction prohibited field trips to the center's coastal waterfront site in Port Richey.

Ford has a traveling planetarium, a bag of stuffed sea animals, aquariums of easy-to-transport sea creatures, and an enthusiasm for what he does that ends with grade school kids smiling and giggling and giving him artwork of underwater scenes, as they did Tuesday.

"That was fun!" 5-year-old Bryan Scott said as he regrouped with his PLACE buddies after the imaginary deep sea adventure at Cypress Elementary.

"I think that's noble of him," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, the local teachers union. "But neither the superintendent, the School Board nor the union would advocate lowering a teacher's salary."

Webb, who said she was not familiar with the details of Ford's situation, said teachers are often the kinds of people who are willing to make such personal sacrifices for what they believe is in the best interest of those they teach.

"While we admire that person, we know that in the long run, it's not the best step," Webb said. Lawmakers should not expect teachers to take such drastic steps to salvage programs, she said.

When Ford finished his hourlong presentation to students on the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, he gathered the children together and tried to answer any last-minute questions they might have.

"Can dolphins kill sharks?" one asked.

"How old are you?" another inquired.

"Once, when I went to Sea World," one declared, "a dolphin splashed me."

And just before Ford wrapped things up and collapsed the big silver planetarium-turned-deep-sea-explorer, 6-year-old Michael Shulze exclaimed the imaginary trip was so much fun that, "I want to go next year!"

"You want to go next year?" Ford repeated as he rose to stand. "Well, maybe I'll be around next year."

_ Rebecca Catalanello covers education in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is rcatalanellosptimes.com.

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