$16M in cuts take a human toll

The School Board makes painful decisions, including 140 layoffs, on next year's budget but falls $6-million short of its $22-million goal.

Published March 8, 2006

As Pinellas School Board members shuffled hundreds of papers Tuesday, it was not hard to read between the lines.

The clerk who makes $24,656 a year plus benefits? That was someone with bills to pay. The foreman who makes $40,547? He'll have to find another job. Those administrators with years of experience? Christmas suddenly doesn't look so good for them.

Some of the papers contained the names of employees whom board members know.

Well aware that livelihoods were on the line but faced with the task of cutting $22-million from next year's budget, board members reluctantly made it most of the way to their goal Tuesday.

After a painstaking, daylong workshop, they cut about $16-million and left the rest for another meeting in the next few weeks.

"We have ahead of us undoubtedly the most difficult decision this board has ever made," chairwoman Carol Cook said as the meeting began Tuesday morning. By late afternoon, the toll included 140 layoffs plus a range of other cuts that will reduce the size and capability of district operations.

The layoffs would take effect this summer.

"It's dreadful, it's painful," said Jan Rouse, an associate superintendent in charge of curriculum who cut several positions from her department. "It has nothing to do with the commitment these people have shown year after year."

Board members will vote on the $16-million in cuts at their regular meeting Tuesday. Later, they will schedule another workshop to complete the task. A vote on the remaining $6-million is expected at their April 4 meeting.

Responding to a large outcry from Seminole residents, the board decided against a proposal to save $1.6-million by closing the Seminole Vocational Education Center. Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said the district now will include the center in its plans as it analyzes the future of vocational education in Pinellas.

The board also suspended talk of canceling its $3.6-million contract with Community Education Partners, a private company that runs a new school for troubled students in Pinellas Park.

Still on the table are just under $5-million in cuts proposed by Wilcox and his staff, but some board members were loath to tackle many of them. They included dozens of additional job cuts and a plan to handle most repairs of school computers through a Dell call center in Tampa.

While some argued that large businesses routinely rely on such call centers, board members Janet Clark, Linda Lerner and Mary Russell expressed grave doubts that it would work on the school district's massive scale.

"You can say, "Do it like a business,' " Lerner said. "But our schools are not businesses. . . . Schools are a very different environment."

If the board is to come up with the required $6-million, it will have to come to terms with all of the $5-million remaining, and then cut some more. Or it will need to find other ways to cut.

If it doesn't, said Lansing Johansen, the district's chief budget officer, the other option is to take the money out of employee raises, already on the paltry side, for next school year.

The budget currently includes a 1.5 percent raise for teachers and a 1 percent raise for most other employees. Veteran teachers at the very top of the pay scale would get about $400.

Among the employees whose jobs were cut Tuesday were nearly 40 clerical workers, computer programmers, administrators and other office staff members. Another 53 were mechanics, electricians and other trades workers, plus more than 50 plant operators, the people who clean schools.

In addition, the board eliminated 10 jobs that are vacant or due to be vacant because of retirements or employees leaving the district. They also returned to classrooms about 40 teachers on "special assignment."

In an effort to lessen the pain, board members halved the number of plant operators from the original proposal of 105. They also cut by 50 percent a proposal by Wilcox to save $1.2-million by limiting the practice of rehiring veteran employees who retire from the district.

The board plans to revisit those ideas, however, and may have to abandon them.

As they wrestled with numbers and the human cost of their work, board members also tangled with each other over their role.

How far should a policymaking body delve into district operations?

Cook and board members Nancy Bostock, Mary Brown and Jane Gallucci asked questions of Wilcox and his staff. But they also acknowledged there was a point at which they trusted that the district's top administrators had put sufficient thought to their budget proposals.

On the other side were Clark, Lerner and Russell, who pressed Wilcox for detailed answers. As the seven-hour meeting unfolded, board members explored the inner workings of the nation's 22nd largest school system in depth, from whether the district needed one or two grant writers to how clean classrooms needed to be. At one point they found themselves discussing paint and body work on school buses, pest control and carpet cleaning.

"How far down does this board go?" Gallucci asked, irritated that some board members were going "below the line" with questions.

Russell shot back: "The purpose of the School Board is to check and balance the system. . . . It's not about trust. It's about checks and balances."