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Schools bracing for tight budget

Pasco County schools superintendent John Long isn't impressed with Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed $15.9-billion education budget, unveiled Tuesday.

But the longtime schools chief isn't surprised, either. No one suggested the 2004-05 academic year would be easy.

"At this point, we're sitting here with our fingers crossed, hoping it'll get better," Long said, after spending part of Thursday morning crunching numbers with Chief Financial Officer Chuck Rushe.

Bush's proposed $1-billion increase for public schools statewide roughly translates to a $25.9-million raise for Pasco County, according to the district.

They calculated that with about $11.25-million of that tied by law to class-size reduction, $750,000 required for other areas like transportation and textbooks, and $8.8-million allowed to help cope with district growth.

The remaining $5.85-million in new revenues leaves little wiggle room beyond what it would cost to institute required staff raises and meet increased insurance costs. Long and Rushe were approaching Bush's finance plan with some reluctance, knowing the budget has a long way to travel before the Legislature and governor agree to a final plan.

But as things appeared this week, Long said, "I don't think we'll have any choice but to go to the School Board with additional cuts."

Pasco County is in the middle of a $640-million budget year that began with the School Board making $10-million in program and staffing cuts, due in large part to a similar situation last fall: The bulk of the overall funding increase was tied to hiring teachers to reduce class size in compliance with a voter-approved constitutional amendment.

Long and Rushe said the early budget figures predicted a very similar situation as the district faced in the fall of 2003. Not knowing now how things would play out in the Legislature, Long said he was trying to be realistic.

"It could be the governor's budget is the best one we'll see," Long said cautiously.

Long worried a drop in tax receipts would affect the amount of state money available for new school construction. Right now, the state's contribution from the tax-driven Public Education Capital Outlay trust fund to the district's new school construction budget is about $3.3-million out of its overall $104-million capital budget.

With 57,000 students and an expected growth of more than 2,000 students per year for the next several years, Pasco County is the fifth-fastest growing district in the state.

School leaders are seeking voter support for a 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase coming up on a March 9 ballot. About 45 percent of the projected $43.7-million in annual revenues are planned to go toward new school construction.

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