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Budget cut not as deep as expected

It's not the $50-million the school district anticipated, but officials still must find a way to trim about $28-million.

By LOGAN MABE
Published May 29, 2003

TAMPA - Prepared to lop as much as $50-million from their operating budget, Hillsborough School District officials got some measure of relief Wednesday.

They'll need to prune, but to the tune of about $28-million.

Which means it hurts about half as much.

"It's still not a good situation," said School Board chairwoman Carol Kurdell. "It's difficult at best."

"It's better than it was, but we still have to do some shifting around to stay in place," said superintendent Earl Lennard. "We're going to have to go after some additional dollars just to stay even."

For district numbers crunchers, the compromise budget passed Tuesday by the Legislature, poses a classic "good news, bad news" scenario.

Hillsborough expects to get $63-million more from the state than it got last year. But that sum comes with more than $62-million in mandated expenditures, most tied to class size reduction, new school construction and a remedial summer reading program for failing third-graders.

"Well, we got a lot of new money; and we got a lot of new bills," said Jim Hamilton, assistant superintendent of operations. Subtract one from the other, and the district walks away with just $885,000 in new money.

"Of course that means no employee raises," Hamilton said. "If we want to do that, we'll have to cut further."

Step increases and a 1 percent pay raise would cost the district another $18-million, money it does not have.

"Everybody wants a raise, and don't I want to give them?" Kurdell said. "But I don't know that we will get one this year or next year."

Two weeks ago School Board members met to identify $50-million in budget cuts, the amount that would have been needed under the more stringent House version of the state budget. With 32 separate items on the chopping block, they approved enough to total about $29-million, an amount in accordance with the current shortfall.

They also highlighted $13-million in "last resort" cuts. It appears those items will survive. They include:

Maintaining the current 184-day school calendar instead of reducing it by four days.

Keeping eight school resource officer positions that would have been eliminated.

Retaining 10 middle and high school assistant principals.

Keeping 197 teacher aides, most of them kindergarten teacher helpers.

But Kurdell said the coming year could mean more cuts if things don't turn around financially.

"I'm not hopeful for next year," she said. "I think we have to keep our plan in place, make our cuts and keep a tight clamp on spending. I'd rather we take all the steps we need to take this year so next year we don't have to go in even deeper."

- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at mabe@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 29, 2003, 02:00:42]


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