Schools shed jobs to meet budget
By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
LARGO -- Pinellas County schools may have to cut up to 90 positions to help balance the district's budget and comply with a state law requiring that more money go into classrooms.
In the next few months, the district will try to save $4-million by trimming positions such as assistant principal, technology specialist and guidance counselor and reassigning those workers to other vacant jobs.
The loss of those positions means services will be cut, and the county's 140 schools will have to find new ways to give one-on-one help to struggling students, keep computers running and work with disruptive students.
The news came Tuesday during a School Board workshop in which board members faced other financial challenges, such as spending millions more a year on bus service for a new parental choice plan. Despite those rising costs and the grim budget picture, board members affirmed their commitment to parental choice.
"We knew this was going to be expensive," said board member Nancy Bostock. "This is the decision we made."
But board members bristled at cutting $4-million, asking Superintendent Howard Hinesley to try to cut administrators. He said he would try, but acknowledged it would be difficult because he already has trimmed the staff at the district headquarters.
"Any choice you make is not a good one," he said.
The district budget proposal, which won't be approved until the fall, includes 4 percent raises for teachers and a commitment to spend $16-million to continue to absorb rising health insurance costs for employees. The district also wants to boost non-instructional salaries and put $4.5-million more into a choice reserve fund.
To spare schools the $4-million cut, board member Jane Gallucci suggested a 3.5 percent raise for teachers and passing on a small portion of the health care costs. That would help the district balance its budget, but would not address the state's "Dollars to the Classroom" Act.
State law defines a classroom as the teacher and materials, not people who support teachers such as specialists and guidance counselors. Recalling similar school-level cuts last year, board members wondered whether they should make the tough decisions so employees wouldn't be pitted against each other.
"It is just divisive to a school team," Gallucci said.
Hinesley urged board members to let schools decide what they can do without. Some schools might not have to make any cuts. Others, such as those that receive extra federal funds or who have other resources, might bear more of the burden.
Dunedin Elementary School principal Michael Tomalesky agreed the decisions should be made at the school level -- though he admitted it would be easier for mandates to come down from the board.
"We just have to take it on the chin sometimes," he said. "Sometimes, there's hard decisions to make."
The 90 people who are cut from school staffs will be given the chance to take other district assignments, many running their own classrooms.
At the same time schools will face tough budget decisions, board members have tough decisions ahead, too. They will have to decide how to provide bus service during the choice plan and what kinds of special programs to put in three new schools.
On the busing front, one plan would push operating costs up by $8.53-million to $8.86-million annually; a second option would increase costs by $7.49-million to $7.77-million.
The first option would keep service as it is now, with one bus picking up all the students who go to school together. Under the second option, one bus would pick up all the elementary school kids in a neighborhood and drop them off at the different schools they attend.
To reduce some of the costs, the district plans to look at a partnership with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, leasing buses or contracting with a private company to provide buses and drivers.
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