1. Opinion

Column: Pinellas schools direct money to what works

As the 2013 Florida legislative session ends and school districts await the education budget for the coming year, it is imperative that the Pinellas County School District examine every expenditure and use sound business models to direct the budget process so that every available dollar addresses educational priorities.

Our budget process must ensure that the services that produce the greatest return on investment for our students are identified and supported — initiatives such as literacy programs, elementary science and applied mathematics labs, STEM clubs, high-performing technical education, arts and physical education.

Recognizing that Florida's education budget is subject to the economic forces that affect the state and the hardworking citizens whose tax dollars we are obligated to invest wisely, our school board, district staff and principals have initiated such a process.

Beginning with this budget cycle, educational finance in Pinellas County schools will no longer be a month-to-month exercise, but rather a year-round continuous process. Going forward, the district will rely on a way of work whereby the budget will be driven by investment in activities based on research and evaluation that yield the best results for the performance of our students.

We have established a district financial framework with the assistance of an oversight committee composed of district and local business financial leaders who are reviewing our budget process and providing us feedback and suggestions for improvement.

We are working to accomplish a consistent and transparent financial analysis in four major areas: school-based operations, district-level expenses, instructional programs and operational expenses. Within each of these cost categories, we are examining the revenue from state and local sources as well as expenses incurred. As a result, we will determine an appropriate support level for the services from which our students realize a benefit.

This process includes communicating progress and results to school board members and school-based leaders, ensuring the avoidance of pitfalls in the budget decisionmaking process. Rather than reacting and throwing resources at the "squeaky wheel," we will insist that budget decisions are made based on sound research and business processes.

We are involving principals in this process, working directly with them to create staffing formulas to ensure that schools have the appropriate number of instructional and support staff positions for the next academic year. As district and school leaders view schools from an instructional and financial perspective, principals have the opportunity for flexibility to address unique student needs while the district lives within its means. The response to this method has been extremely positive.

This type of analysis identifies where the district is spending more money than it receives in revenue, yet allows the opportunity for decisions to be made in such cases where overexpenditure is warranted. For example, while the district's safe schools allocation is approximately $3.2 million, we currently spend $3.9 million for school resource officers and other security measures, a conscious choice the school board has made to ensure school safety.

In other words, if we decide to overspend in one area, we must determine where we can reduce expenditures in other areas in order to live within our means. We owe this level of analysis to our employees, and I applaud our board members for embracing this type of budget process improvement.

We are using the same process for determining staffing of district programs and expenses. It is imperative that we do everything we can to protect the quality of education in our classrooms, yet we nevertheless must maintain an exemplary district staff that provides relevant and critical services to our schools if we are to be a national model.

In short, as the largest business in Pinellas County, the school district will continue to strive to establish a culture of fiscal responsibility and cost analysis in every aspect of its operations while striving to raise the ceiling on student achievement.

School board members and I have come away from recent meetings with the Pinellas County legislative delegation assured that this sober, clear-eyed approach to budgeting has the support of our elected officials. I want to thank the delegation for engaging in meaningful two-way communication in an effort to identify needs and address issues that will lead to better outcomes for our students.

As the Legislature crafts a budget, I believe public education will receive the priority attention it must if our students are to succeed and our community is to prosper. Our quality of life, as well as that of our children and grandchildren, depends on it.

Michael Grego is superintendent of Pinellas County schools. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.