Pasco County School District officials scrambled Monday to find $1 million in their "tight" but balanced budget after learning they must add an hour of daily instruction at three elementary schools.
They had planned to squeeze the state-mandated extra reading lessons into the standard six-hour day at Cox, Gulfside and Lacoochee elementary schools, which landed on the list of Florida's 300 lowest-performing elementary schools in reading. But the Florida Department of Education issued an interpretation of state law late Friday making clear that the schools' learning days must be longer, not just more efficiently structured.
"As you are aware, schools identified as among the 300 lowest-performing elementary schools in reading are required by law to provide an additional hour of instruction beyond the normal school day for each day of the entire school year for intensive reading instruction for the students in each of these schools," Education Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote.
That means the minimums of 720 hours of school per year for kindergarten through third grade, and 900 hours for fourth and fifth grade, must increase by 180 hours, she explained.
"This comes as a very unpleasant surprise, because we have to find $1 million," School Board Chairwoman Alison Crumbley said Monday, just a day before the board was scheduled to hold its first of two public budget hearings. "We can't do what the state says not to do."
Crumbley sounded frustrated that the district staff would recommend a plan that did not comply with law. Still, she noted, the state did not release its list of 300 lowest-performing schools until mid July, well after budget planning began, and further was unclear on how to implement the added instructional hour until news media raised the question.
The upshot could be cuts to other planned expenses or programs.
"We're trying to give the teachers as much as possible," Crumbley said. "It's exasperating."
Board member Allen Altman noted that the district already had to set aside money for other costs beyond its control, such as $675,000 for federal Affordable Care Act reinsurance fees and $1.4 million for increased state retirement contributions. This new, unanticipated cost takes another bite out of a budget that already has little wiggle room, he said.
The Legislature appropriated $642 million statewide for supplemental academic instruction, and an additional $75 million for reading instruction. Districts with schools on the lowest-300 list are supposed to use their share of that money first on an extended day for those schools, then spend the remainder on other initiatives.
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"Something has to take a hit," board vice chairman Steve Luikart said. "The last (budget) proposals I have seen have been to the tightwire."
Superintendent Kurt Browning emailed key staffers early Monday that he wanted to discuss options for putting the extra hour in place. Early estimates showed that added bus routes would cost about $14,000, while salaries for the added time would near $963,000.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.