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The Pinellas school cuts

Florida lawmakers are projecting a $3.2-billion state windfall next year, but Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox still can't count on getting enough state money to avoid spending cuts. Wilcox has prepared a generally thoughtful strategy to cut $19.7-million from county schools next year, and elected School Board members would be wise to brace for the possibility.

To his credit, Wilcox has directed his budget paring mainly toward administrative and support jobs. He would put 63 teachers now on "special assignment" back in the classroom. He would eliminate some administrative and clerical personnel in the main headquarters and in Family Education and Information Centers, cut roughly 100 custodians, delay a testing program that has proved of uncertain value, and drop a costly contract for a Pinellas Park alternative school.

Wilcox's plan to close and realign some alternative schools is understandable, especially given the increasing gap between what the district spends and the state reimburses for such education. But board members will need a clear plan for how these students will be served in other school environments. They will also want a clear sense for how a district that is expanding vocational education offerings would consider closing a worthwhile program in Seminole.

Not included in the cuts to any significant degree is the transportation system that carries students to schools. After the 2006-07 school year, though, the district will have an opportunity to bring some common sense to its rambling choice student assignment plan. Given the current deficit, the soaring busing costs are hard to miss. This year the district will spend $21-million more on buses than the state reimburses. Reducing that expense alone could balance the budget.

These are not easy choices, and parents may be wondering when schools will receive their due. The extra property tax that Pinellas voters supported in 2004 will be spent, as promised, to give teachers raises. But the state tax surplus is another story. Lawmakers will write a state budget this spring, but Pinellas is taking its cue from the proposal submitted by the governor.

For better answers, parents might want to ask their state representative or senator why the state has so much money and their local school district can't make ends meet.

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