Cuts spare staffers closest to students
By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
When Oscar Robinson was the Pinellas School District's director of elementary education, he was a frequent visitor to the county's schools. He kept an eye on programs for struggling readers and made sure new textbooks were working out.
Now Robinson's old job is gone, one of 51 district-level positions being eliminated to balance the 2002-2003 budget. Ninety-four custodial positions are being cut, too.
Robinson long ago moved to another position, but he hoped the county would fill his old job. The county cuts mean the positions -- vacant, but kept on the books -- won't be refilled. No one will be fired, though.
Administrators will have to take on extra tasks -- and in Robinson's case, he can't imagine how the assistant superintendent for elementary education will have time to do her job plus everything the director did.
"It's going to be very difficult to be visible," said Robinson, now an area superintendent. "You may not feel the impact at the opening of school. But as the year goes on, the level of services won't be the same."
School officials were expecting the cuts to be much worse after being told last week that they might have to trim up to 90 positions to save $4-million. When Superintendent Howard Hinesley told principals on Thursday the cuts would spare the people who work directly with students, he got a standing ovation.
But it's not all good news. Many of the positions being eliminated help teachers and principals do their jobs.
In the special education department, for example, five teachers who work on curriculum materials and train teachers now also have another task: working with kids to figure out what services they need. Two teams of employees used to handle those separate tasks, but some staffing specialists have gone back to teaching.
"They're just really doing double duty," said Jan Rouse, an assistant superintendent. "And probably aging more rapidly."
Still, Hinesley said, it's better for the district to trim at district headquarters than ask schools to cut employees who have daily contact with students. The cuts, he said, mean that fewer people will be available to help teachers. Some tasks might take longer than usual, because fewer people will be entering data in school computers or answering phones.
"Let me assure you, it wasn't any fun doing this," Hinesley said. "This will have an impact. But in my judgment, we're just going to have to tighten up."
There are 17,000 or so employees countywide, with almost 9,000 of those teachers. Just last week, Hinesley told School Board members he wasn't sure the district office could take any more cuts. But board members urged him to find a way to spare the school-based guidance counselors, achievement specialists and technology assistants who would have been among the first to go.
Under the cost-cutting measures outlined this week:
Fifty-one district-level positions will be eliminated. They include a dropout prevention supervisor, special events coordinator and maintenance workers. Some of the people who held those jobs have either retired or been reassigned to classrooms; those who are still working at district headquarters will be moved to available school jobs.
Another 12 positions will no longer be funded with state money but shifted into existing federal funds as of July 1.
The district will hold back 10 percent of school discretionary budgets to save $372,000. School discretionary budgets are used for basic supplies, such as renting copiers.
The district's custodial staff will be reduced by 94 workers to save $2-million. Area superintendents are working on a plan to equitably distribute custodians around the district but say some services might not be offered as often, such as mopping floors. No one will be fired; most of those 94 jobs have gone unfilled the past 10 months.
Board member Max Gessner said he was "tickled to death" that schools would not be hit directly. He praised the move to make custodial services more efficient and said the district could always look at restoring some jobs when budget times are better.
But Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said he has already gotten a complaint from a middle school about inadequate cleaning.
"You're putting new schools online and expanding schools and yet you're cutting 94 janitors?" Moore asked. "One of the things the district prides itself on is the cleanliness of its facilities. That sounds like a pretty significant hit to me."
In the schools, employees had been fearful about which positions might get axed, said Michael Tomalesky, principal at Dunedin Elementary School. In that way, Tomalesky was "surprised and pleased" schools won't have to make difficult, potentially divisive cuts.
Yet, he's not really sure how hard it will be to face the other cuts. He's willing to make the best of it.
"There's a tradeoff," he said. "If we don't have to lose teachers and we don't have to lose positions, we'll work with the plant operators to make sure they can do their jobs."
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