Teacher cuts projected for Pinellas high schools

Declining rolls are driving cuts, schools chief Mike Grego says.
Declining rolls are driving cuts, schools chief Mike Grego says.
Published Feb. 18, 2014

Some of the most struggling high schools in Pinellas County are facing significant cuts to teaching positions next year, according to preliminary staffing memos from district administrators.

But, amid anxiety from school leaders and staff, superintendent Mike Grego cautioned Monday that the numbers likely will become less severe as the budget process moves forward.

Declining enrollment is driving the need to "right-size" the district, Grego said. "It's a process that takes art and skill and science, and it will be another four to five months" before it's through.

The number of students in Pinellas public schools has decreased by about 3,000 since the 2009-10 academic year. More than half of that loss has been in high schools.

Pinellas principals received emails from their area superintendents last week detailing initial "unit allocation" for the 2014-15 school year. Gibbs High School was to lose 17 teaching positions, while Dixie Hollins was slated to lose 12 and Lakewood was down for 14.

High schools altogether would lose 139 teaching positions, according to early projections — about a 10 percent cut in the teaching workforce for those grades. At the same time, however, the district would create 22 new teaching positions for struggling and special needs students at two alternative schools.

"I realize that a reduction in units is one of the challenging tasks for a principal," area superintendent Pat Wright wrote in emails to principals. "It is also one of the many critical tasks you deal with as you manage the fiscal and operations elements of your school."

Principals will begin meeting with Pinellas administrators on Wednesday to discuss these initial numbers and work toward final ones. The process will be "collaborative in nature and it is essential that we work together," Wright wrote.

The memos are based on the school system's general revenue and do not account for federal dollars schools receive to support English-language learners, students with special needs and students living in poverty.

"I give principals and area superintendents flexibility to decide what's going to work with their schools, with the understanding we all have some level of fiscal responsibility," Grego said.

For example, a school could choose to use federal Title I funding to restore a few teaching positions at a high-poverty school. Grego said the district also is willing to accommodate special circumstances. "We might decide this is a great expense and we get a great return on investment and we're going to fund it," he said.

Pinellas, which has seen enrollment dwindle for years, began verifying that its staff was matched appropriately to its student body through this process last year. Stephanie Adkinson, the principal at Gibbs, said she was able to talk down a loss of six positions to three for 2013-14.

"Just showing data on a piece of paper is one thing, but to describe how it impacts our school, how it impacts our students, that's our wheelhouse" when justifying positions to top administrators, Adkinson said.

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Her initial reaction to seeing a projected loss of 16.75 positions for 2014-15, she says, was, "Whaaaaat?" But, "I feel comfortable we're going to walk out being fairly supported."

Lakewood High School is projected to get 61 teaching positions, 14 fewer than this year.

"It's crazy. It's a lot, but we don't know that's for sure yet," said principal Robert Vicari, who's scheduled to meet with district administrators Wednesday.

"I understand the whole 'right-size the district' and 'live within your means,' but we have a lot of things we have to accomplish and it's not like we have a surplus of staff," Vicari said. "Everyone's working the best they can. There's a reason we were able to become an A school this year."

Grego said the district was not planning to do anything to undermine the progress of its schools. "Why would we want to do that?" he asked. "Why would anyone want to do that? That's why we're having a collaborative meeting."

Both district and school leaders said they expect schools to lose fewer positions than outlined in the memos. Still, all parties anticipate some losses.

Kim Black, president of the Pinellas County Classroom Teachers Association, said she was not familiar with the initial allocations sent out last week. "The contract calls for conversations between the bargaining parties, so those conversations need to be had," she said.

Black said the union would work to place teachers whose positions were eliminated in new jobs throughout the district. She urged teachers considering transferring to other schools to put in those requests soon.

Grego said it would take several months to finalize any cuts, given that the Legislature will need to put out a budget and a plethora of other factors will need to fall in line. "It's about the pieces together so we know what's being allocated," he said.

Contact Lisa Gartner at Follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).