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    Schools' budget outlook: 'painful'

    Pinellas superintendent Howard Hinesley uses words like "unpopular" in the face of a projected $7.3-million shortfall.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 28, 2003


    LARGO -- In the middle of a School Board workshop Monday, board chairwoman Linda Lerner asked for a no-nonsense, one-page summary of the school district's budget outlook.

    Under her breath, board member Jane Gallucci offered this summary with a weary smile: "We have no money. Period."

    The workshop covered several topics: teacher pay, desegregation, fixing salary inequities, utility bills. But each discussion circled back to the budget picture.

    In a bulletin to employees Monday, superintendent Howard Hinesley warned that the state is facing "a budget nightmare even more severe than what we experienced in the early 1990s."

    Then, speaking specifically of Pinellas schools, Hinesley warned that the district's projected $7.3-million shortfall "will require that we review strategies that will be both painful and unpopular."

    It was in that context that the board again reviewed its goal of straightening out inequities in employee pay and of boosting teacher salaries to the national average.

    The board has been considering putting a sales tax increase before voters in a referendum, with the money being used to bring Pinellas teachers up to the national salary average.

    "We can't meet that goal without a referendum," Hinesley told board members, some of whom like the idea of paying teachers more but aren't ready to go to the voters for the extra revenue.

    "I don't think a referendum's going to go right now," said board member Carol Cook.

    Other board members resisted the idea of raising money locally, knowing that Gov. Jeb Bush -- facing the financial challenge presented by the class size reduction amendment -- is encouraging districts to generate more tax dollars locally.

    "The referendum said it was the state's responsibility," said Gallucci. "Tallahassee finds every way for them not to raise taxes. We need to put the burden back where it belongs (on the state)."

    Board members reminded Hinesley that they would like to see classrooms spared as he goes about planning budget trims. Hinesley said that is always his goal. Still, he made it clear that cuts will be difficult.

    For instance, he warned board members that the district might have to discontinue extended-year programs at three schools next year because it appears there will be no money for them.

    "It's not in anybody's budget, and it's not in any bills," Hinesley said. "That's a pretty good clue."

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