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Deeper school cuts hit a nerve

Pinellas school officials no longer need worry about cutting $19.7-million from next year's budget. The figure went up to $22-million Tuesday, a sour bit of news that got the School Board's budget discussions off to a contentious start.

A tense, 2 1/2-hour workshop featured a healthy dose of sniping, resulted in few decisions and left the board behind schedule.

Three board members peppered school superintendent Clayton Wilcox with questions, saying he and his staff had not provided enough information for them to decide on many of the cuts.

"This is too much and too fast and way, way too vague," board member Mary Russell said.

Four other board members had questions as well, but said they felt informed enough to move more quickly through Wilcox's proposals.

"There does come a time when we do have to say, "This is what we're going to do; this is what we're not going to do,' " said board chairperson Carol Cook.

Wilcox said district administrators would answer all questions. But he expressed dismay that some board members did not ask them earlier.

What next?

"Many, many, many more hours" of public debate over the cuts, said board member Linda Lerner, who also pressed Wilcox for more information. The board will discuss the budget again at special meetings Thursday and Tuesday as it struggles to meet a self-imposed deadline of March 14 for making the cuts.

Board members are being asked to sift through $26-million in proposed reductions submitted by Wilcox as they work their way to the $22-million figure. They came to consensus on about $300,000 in cuts Tuesday.

"It is sausage-making," Wilcox said of the budget process. "I understand that. So I'm not crazy over it. But I just thought we'd be further along than this."

The meeting, which included several tart exchanges, exposed frayed nerves over the prospect of cuts that would close a handful of popular programs and eliminate jobs or change working conditions for hundreds of district employees. Also at play is timing, with four of seven board seats up for grabs in the fall elections.

At one juncture, Wilcox challenged Russell for making comments under her breath during the debate. "This is a very hard process," he said. "It's not just hard for some sitting around the table."

He asked Russell to refrain from making side comments. "As long as you don't make under-the-breath comments either," said Board member Janet Clark, a frequent Russell ally.

Scores of e-mails protesting the cuts have flowed into the board's offices in recent days. Many are from district maintenance workers who stand to lose their jobs or see their departments gutted. Many more are from supporters of the Seminole Vocational Education Center, which Wilcox has proposed closing to save $1.6-million.

An overflow crowd including both groups packed into Tuesday night's regular board meeting, which followed the budget workshop. Those who supported the Seminole center said its programs in veterinary science, horticulture, commercial art and other disciplines were irreplaceable. Maintenance workers said they were unfairly bearing the brunt of the cuts and that outsourcing their work would not necessarily save the district money.

The district revised the deficit to $22-million to account for the state's proposed new mandate that every school district give bonuses to the top 10 percent of its teachers, based on test scores. The district projects the mandate, if it withstands scrutiny, would cost Pinellas about $1.5-million.

Adding another $900,000 to the shortfall is a decision to give modest pay raises of $400 to veteran teachers at the top of the district's pay scale.

Board members sparred over whether to factor the teacher bonus plan into their budget discussions. Russell and Lerner argued that including it amounted to accepting the mandate without a fight.

Clark said leaving out the bonus plan would spare the district from making some job cuts now. She also proposed ignoring the mandate, but was challenged by other board members and board attorney James Robinson, who said that would be illegal.

Failing to account for the bonus plan now could put the district in the position of having to cut jobs later this year, said board members Mary Brown, Jane Gallucci and Nancy Bostock. Cook, the chairperson, agreed.

The board is aiming to cut the budget at its March 14 meeting. Wilcox explained the schedule, saying the district needs to know how much money is left before it can begin bargaining this spring with unions for teachers and support employees. Making the decision early will allow affected employees to find other jobs, Wilcox said. It also will allow the district time to find jobs within the system for those workers, he said. "The sooner you know the better."

In addition, the board debated the proposed elimination of computer technicians based at the district's warehouse complex in Largo. Wilcox has proposed handling those calls through a Dell call center in Tampa, a service covered under warranty agreements. Response times to schools would be four hours for server problems and eight hours for problems with classroom computers, he said.

The average time between calls for service and repairs from the district's technicians is 11.9 work days, Wilcox said.

Russell, Lerner and Clark said they needed more information on the proposal.