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School district needs to brace for bad budget news

Published May 4, 2003

No one knows for sure just how much economic damage the state Legislature is about to inflict on Florida's schools because the bickering politicians couldn't get their work done on time last week. Some districts, however, are already heading to the bomb shelters.

Hillsborough is telling parents its cuts may include the school year itself, a retreat from the amount of time spent actually teaching children. Pinellas is looking at cutting 600 jobs and a successful pre-kindergarten program that serves 700 kids.

Arts programs are going the way of the dinosaur, while rickety portable classrooms are about to spring up on campuses coast to coast. Programs aimed at recruiting teachers to the state and keeping those already here may become memories.

And don't even think about what the legislators are proposing to do to higher education, it's too frightening. Tuition costs may jump 12.5 percent while the state tries to wreck one of the very few useful avenues for low- to moderate-income students to get into college - the Bright Futures scholarships.

Was it only six months ago that so many of these same office-holders, from the governor on down, were candidates preaching to naive voters about the importance of education, about how hard they would work to improve our school systems?

Feeling pretty hoodwinked about now?

School officials and parents in Citrus County, like their counterparts elsewhere in the state, can only watch and wait for the bad news to tumble down from Tallahassee. Citrus, however, is in a somewhat better position than other counties to take the hit. How much better is a subject of much conjecture. The district's financial details remain as inscrutable as always.

Superintendent David Hickey says that we're in better shape than other districts that are contemplating wholesale cuts in personnel and programs. He fears, though, that Citrus will be punished for its fiscal prudence as the wasteful larger districts get the bulk of the available funds.

Board member Patience Nave has been waving a warning flag in recent weeks, saying that the board should wait to see what comes out of the state budget before making any funding commitments. She's even suggested freezing district spending for the remainder of the school year.

Instead, last week, the subject before the board was pay raises for administrators. Not whether to have any at all, but how generous they should be.

It's interesting to note that while other districts are talking about how many such positions will have to be lost, in Citrus, we continue to add more of them and hand out raises that are well above the current levels in the private sector.

The assistant superintendent, for instance, would get a $3,800 bump to $80,950 a year under the administration's proposal to the board. How many other folks in Citrus got that kind of raise this year, last year or the year before?

Other administrators would get raises up to $2,900. And the raises would be retroactive to last July.

Don't be surprised if those administrators being lopped off district payrolls around the state follow the streets of gold to Citrus. We may not be able to lure teachers, but we'll have no trouble getting well-paid office workers.

Of course, the howl went up about how essential these positions are to the smooth running of the district, and how important it is that the pay scales remain competitive with other districts.

With all due respect to the administrators and the work that they do, is this really the time to be bulking up the administrative side of the district?

As Board member Pat Deutschman noted, only a small percentage of the administrators deal with the essential mission of the district: classroom education. "It doesn't seem like we're putting the emphasis on education. We're putting the emphasis on management," she said.

With so much fiscal uncertainty looming, the board should not commit at this time to generous raises for the administrative team. True, the board recently approved raises for teachers, but those were long overdue and came after many months of tough negotiations. Plus, they still leave the teachers paid less than the administrators.

Later this month, the board will hear from Hickey on what areas may need to be cut if the Legislature, as expected, thumbs its nose at public education. Board members will also discuss in more detail their concerns about the duties and workloads of the administrative staff.

At a time when the board may have to choose which programs for students to cut, it should not be throwing money at the administrative staff.

Teachers, students and parents have all been told in recent years to show patience and to learn to live with less. The administrators must do the same.

[Last modified May 4, 2003, 01:46:30]

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