Apathy may be biggest foe in closing Pasco school budget shortfall

Published May 27, 2012

Dean Tindall, a parent of two high school-age children, did the math. The 67,000-student Pasco School District faces a $25.3 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year.

Why not charge the parents of every child $400 to start school in August?

It's an extreme (and illegal) idea.

Still, Tindall's suggestion Monday night illustrated a strong sentiment among Wesley Chapel parents. They are willing to pay more for public education. At least the ones who traveled to John Long Middle School for the first of five town hall meetings on closing the budget deficit.

Unfortunately, a sparse turnout meant a broad perspective was absent. About three dozen people, including school district employees and journalists, attended and only 12 people spoke, including two complaining about the lack of specific budget proposals to be considered by the School Board.

The missing detail was a valid point even if it was delivered amid tea-flavored rants critical of teachers, School Board members, busing, school spending and public education in general.

A year ago, hundreds crowded these town hall meetings when the district publicized potential elimination of music, art and interscholastic sports. They also talked of a possible four-day school week, or shifting workloads to require middle and high school faculty to teach an extra period each day. None of those ideas came to fruition.

There was no such cost-savings list available Monday evening, just dismal numbers. Over a five-year period, the Pasco School District has confronted collective budget shortfalls of $145 million, including this year's projected budget hole of $25.3 million attributed mostly to expiring federal stimulus dollars, the cost of meeting the class-size amendment, and past use of one-time revenue that is no longer available.

The five-year crunch explains why teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians and bus drivers haven't received salary increases since 2007 and why they took a pay cut in the current school year courtesy of furloughs. It's why the district eliminated more than 500 positions last summer.

Since last year, the district investigated, but again discarded the four-day school week. Memories of the 2011 public outcry apparently will spare music and art in 2012.

But that doesn't bring the district any closer to a balanced budget despite the intentions expressed Monday night. One parent said he would pay for the courtesy bus rides now provided to some children who live within 2 miles of their school. Others offered to try fundraising like T-shirt contests or to seek business partnerships.

Tindall pointed to Florida's unwillingness to assess sales tax on Internet purchases. The Legislature's reluctance to close that loophole costs the state $450 million annually for public schools and other state services.

Hisham Sunna noted just 28 percent of the school district budget comes from local property taxes. Why not higher taxes?

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"I know that's not a popular thing,'' he admitted.

Indeed, and the public let that be known less than two years ago. In November 2010, Pasco voters rejected extending a tax of 25 cents per $1,000 of property value for two years. It would have meant $5.5 million toward the annual budget, or about the cost of paying for 105 teachers.

Not everyone was on board with paying more. Some speakers wanted to cut bus transportation or after-school tutoring — both mandated by state or federal law.

Most notable, however ,was the public apathy. Wesley Chapel is the site of eight elementary, two middle and two high schools in which roughly 10,000 students are enrolled. Monday night, that averaged out to approximately one speaker for every 800 kids. The School Board members want direction. The public can't complain if it doesn't give it to them.

Incidentally, surrounding John Long Middle School is the Meadow Pointe development where the owners of a $125,000 house pay twice as much in annual Community Development District dues as they do in school operating taxes. The numbers raise a question that should resonate in Wesley Chapel, the southern portion of which is one of the county's most affluent zip codes, and with state legislators who set the school property tax rate.

Shouldn't the neighborhood school be as valuable as the neighborhood swimming pool and park?