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School budget cuts stop at $19M

If not for new state money, the budget would be tighter. Board members are split on their role.

Published March 22, 2006

LARGO - The Pinellas School Board trimmed another $3-million from its budget Tuesday, bringing the total cuts to $19-million for next fiscal year and ending a tedious process that exposed a deep rift over the board's role in running the district.

It could have been worse.

Board members were prepared to make cuts totaling $22-million. But the prospect of getting more state money than anticipated made their job easier.

Among the cuts on the table Tuesday were more than 60 jobs, including 12 computer technicians and dozens of custodians. The board, however, was able to find savings elsewhere.

After eliminating more than 50 custodial jobs in a similar meeting two weeks ago, board members said they feared cutting more positions would lead to dirtier schools. And by sparing the 12 computer technicians, they ditched a controversial proposal to handle computer repairs at schools through a Dell call center in Tampa.

The board came within an eyelash of eliminating a controversial contract with education giant Kaplan Inc., which sold the district a computerized system for assessing students' academic progress. Expanded this year to 67 schools, the system tests students several times a year.

But problems led most of the seven board members Tuesday to express dismay, even anger, over the system. Many teachers say the tests are cumbersome, of little value and not taken seriously by students. Some board members alleged Kaplan used Pinellas as a guinea pig to develop the system. "They didn't deliver for two years," said board member Linda Lerner, clearly exasperated. "They owe us."

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who inherited the Kaplan contract, also has complained of flaws in the way the system has been implemented.

But he recommended keeping the system, saying teachers need an assessment tool to improve their instruction in an era when state and federal governments are demanding strict accountability from educators. He also said the district and Kaplan have worked hard to smooth out the kinks.

His pitch tipped the scale, with a 4-3 board majority opting to hold onto the Kaplan system while vowing to monitor it closely. Cutting the system would have saved about $1.4-million.

The same 4-3 split showed up time and again Tuesday and in a half dozen recent meetings on the budget. The two sides fundamentally disagree on the board's role in setting district policy.

Board members Linda Lerner, Mary Russell and Janet Clark questioned Wilcox and his staff sharply throughout the process, at times saying administrators' budget cut proposals were ill-considered. They also probed the district's operations, looking for cuts in some areas and trying to avoid them in others.

"There's a split on the board about what the job of this board is," said Lerner, who lectured Tuesday about the importance of a single machinist. "Oversight is essential. It is the board's job."

But that oversight should only go so deep, said board member Nancy Bostock, who joined Mary Brown, Jane Gallucci and Carol Cook in wanting to limit the board to a more general role.

The board should not be nitpicking individual jobs, she argued.

Last Thursday's news that a Florida Senate committee had agreed to increase the state's allotment to schools gave the board more wiggle room Tuesday.

Legislative estimates give Pinellas a $53-million increase over last year, well above the district's estimate of $34-million.

But district budget officials say that number is wildly optimistic. Their best guess is the increase will be closer to $38-million.

They also said the added money did not eliminate the need for cuts to "right size" the district as it tries to rebuild its reserves.

By avoiding additional job cuts Tuesday, the board eased the pain of more than 140 district employees whose jobs were eliminated earlier in the budget process, said Cook, the board's chairwoman.

She said it now appears more likely those employees will find work within the district due to retirements and other departures. She said the Pinellas Sheriff's Office has said it would consider school district workers for employment, enabling them to retain their state pension benefits.

Among the jobs previously eliminated were nearly 40 clerical workers, computer programmers, administrators and other office staff, plus 53 mechanics, electricians and other trades workers.

In addition, the board returned about 40 teachers on "special assignment" or "TSAs" to regular classroom teaching jobs. Returning TSAs to classroom positions means the district will have to hire fewer new teachers this year to meet the state mandate to reduce class sizes. The savings: about $2.2-million.

On Tuesday, board members moved another 35 TSAs to classroom positions for a savings of more than $2-million.

[Last modified March 22, 2006, 01:58:24]

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