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Board to scrutinize schools' finances

Today's workshop will detail recent aid losses and spending cuts, as well as possible future savings.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002


INVERNESS -- In late September school officials did something unprecedented: They gathered representatives of all the district's employee unions, which negotiate for nearly 2,000 workers, and laid out the realities of a tight budget.

Now officials know more details of just how tight that budget is, with the district losing $2.9-million in expected state revenue and worrying that next year will be even worse.

Today the School Board will meet in a workshop with superintendent David Hickey to discuss how the schools are weathering that storm and where future cuts might be necessary.

The discussions will be watched with great interest by employees still operating under last year's contract and pay scales.

"There are a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainty on their part," said Terry Flaherty, president of the Citrus County Education Association, which represents the county's public school teachers, aides, secretaries and clerks. "What I'm hearing is not gripes, but they know that there are a lot of questions about the budget."

All employees have received their automatic pay increases for increased experience, and many teachers received $850 bonuses established by the Legislature. But no other raises have been given.

Flaherty said employees are eager to hear what is said today and to return to the bargaining table soon. "We're hoping that this contract will wrap up pretty quick in one, two or three sessions," he said. As soon as this one is done, he said, the union is ready to sit down and begin discussing the 2002-03 contract.

"We're watching it real carefully," said Jean Russell, a member of the Teamsters bargaining team, which negotiates contracts for blue-collar workers. "We're trying to be patient, but it's wearing very thin."

The board will not talk in detail about pay raises during this session. Hickey said there will be a private executive session concerning employee contracts during the next regular meeting Feb. 12. Contract negotiation strategies mark one of the rare times when the board can discuss issues behind closed doors.

Although details of possible raises -- or no raises -- won't be discussed specifically, providing for the district's employees is on the minds of all the elected officials. Board Chairwoman Pat Deutschman said last week that she is interested in seeing Hickey's budget-cutting ideas because she wants to know if there are some dollars available for raises.

Hickey said employee needs are on his mind, as well. But there are other concerns, such as finding ways to absorb the current cuts and prepare if new cost reductions will be needed next year.

Until now, Hickey has maintained that cuts in district-level budgets and other spending adjustments outside of the schools themselves would absorb the hit for this year.

"Who wants to lose $2.9-million?" he asked. "But we're not going to dismantle the Citrus County School District. We will come out of this."

His plan is to open today's workshop by bringing the board up to date with budget cuts made in the district before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, explain where dollars were lost after state tourist money plummeted afterwards and talk about some of his ideas for cost savings.

He also said he has a priority list for savings for next year, but he is primarily interested in hearing the board's ideas and priorities before sharing that information.

"The 2002-03 year, it's an unknown, so let's prepare and let's look at things that we really don't want to do," Hickey said.

In addition to asking Hickey to bring his budget-cutting ideas forward, the board has asked for some other detailed information from him and his staff. Members are seeking updated information about the district's various contingency funds and a detailed report on how the district has spent its Supplemental Academic Instruction, or SAI, dollars.

Those monies can be used for specific kinds of expenses, such as hiring new staff and providing pay raises.

With the 2002 legislative session beginning today, Hickey said there will be strong efforts to lobby lawmakers into providing more funding for education in the coming year. He said the state needs to increase the base student allocation, which is what districts receive in state dollars for each full-time equivalent student.

Hickey also noted that lawmakers need to provide more flexibility so that more state money can be spent where it is needed, rather than earmarking large amounts of state dollars for specific purposes.

"If they're going to talk about local control, then they have got to allow local control," he said.

The board workshop, which is open to the public, begins at 9 a.m. in the upstairs conference room of the District Services Center at Main Street and Montgomery Avenue in Inverness.

-- Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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