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Published Jul. 8, 2010

The Pinellas County School Board has better options to balance the budget than job furloughs, a shortsighted, one-time quick fix that does not address the district's long-term problems. Furloughs are the easy way out, and the pain they would create for thousands of teachers and other workers would not result in better policy or firmer financial footing.

Instead of forcing more than 11,500 school employees to take unpaid days off this year, the School Board and administrators should look at other permanent savings that will lay the groundwork for even leaner budgets in the years ahead. The district is dealing now with a $26 million budget hole, and after looking for cuts throughout the system it still needs to cut another $8 million. Furloughing teachers for three days and administrators for up to nine days would save $7.8 million. There are better ways to cut spending that would weave the savings into the budget in the years to come. Here are two:

SAVE $4.5 MILLION BY REDUCING BUSING COSTS. This is what the district estimates it could save if buses were eliminated for students attending schools outside their geographic zones and for those at Thurgood Marshall Middle and Osceola High fundamental schools. Students at fundamental schools traditionally have had to provide their own transportation, and the district can no longer afford to make exceptions.

In the case of out-of-zone students, they chose to be grandfathered into their current schools when the district started a new student-assignment plan that put pupils in "close-to-home" schools. It was a mistake then to continue to provide transportation for those students who chose that option, and it would be a mistake now to keep doing it. Arterial buses - which run along main routes and typically require a longer walk to the bus stop - would still operate but only for students at specialized magnet schools, which offer programs not available elsewhere. There is no justification for cutting teacher pay to keep an inefficient busing system.

SAVE $4 MILLION BY INSISTING EMPLOYEES PAY A LARGER SHARE OF THEIR HEALTH CARE COSTS. The district covers nearly 82 percent of employees' insurance premiums and expects to pay nearly $100 million in premiums this year. Reducing the district's portion to 75 percent would save the district more than $8 million a year (only half of that would apply to the current budget gap because of the timing of fiscal years). This would require the teachers' union to agree to the change, but it reflects the real world in which public employers - and the taxpayers who fund them - can no longer afford to cover such a large share of insurance costs. Workers in private industry, particularly in small businesses, are fortunate if their employer pays half or more of their premiums, if they have group health plans at all.

These are both difficult cost-saving changes, but they reflect sound policy and are far better than furloughs. Tough times require a smarter approach to budgeting, one that builds a new frugality into the process and keeps this year's savings intact in the years ahead. A School Board that embraces a painful budget fix with no long-term gain is one that lacks vision and creativity.