School officials are wary of cuts

With Amendment 1's passage comes fears about its affect on classrooms.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published January 31, 2008

LAND O'LAKES - Now that Amendment 1 has passed, Pasco school district officials want to see how lawmakers will keep their pledge to hold education harmless from the resulting property tax decrease.

"They promised us, of course, they will have no impact on the schools," School Board member Marge Whaley said Wednesday. "I see no way for them to do that. I really think we will be impacted, one way or the other."

Before the vote, superintendent Heather Fiorentino circulated an "informational" slide show that highlighted the possible outcome if the amendment were to pass. She noted that the district stood to lose $67.5-million over five years, adding that it could hurt any effort to maintain competitive salaries and keep up with construction needs.

Fiorentino did not yet have a list of potential spending cuts. She and others have stressed in the past the district's frugality in making budget decisions, noting, for example, the six-week waiting period before filling job vacancies. Such efforts should lessen the immediate blow, they suggested.

Board chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said she expected the district to remain "fiscally responsible and very conservative." She figured the board will discuss its options during its meeting next Tuesday, which includes a budget workshop.

At the same time, Starkey said, "I will be talking with my legislators ... about the promises of holding school districts harmless."

One of those lawmakers, state Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, said he intends to make every effort to protect schools from cuts.

"We've made a commitment with the governor to do this, and we've got to do this," said Weatherford, who sits on the House Policy and Budget Council. "When we get back to Tallahassee, we've got to reprioritize our budget."

He suggested that the budget exercise could lead to a long overdue return to a time where the state's support of schools returns to majority level. Local taxes have increasingly become the primary source of education funding over the past decade.

"We have to get it done and we will," Weatherford said. "I think everything is on the table."

Senate majority whip Paula Dockery of Lakeland, whose district includes half of Hernando County, said she also remains committed to ensuring full funding of education despite expected tax revenue decreases.

"The state is going to need to make up the difference," said Dockery, who sits on the Senate Education Appropriations Committee.

When seeking places to cut, she said, lawmakers need to look at things in the budget that benefit individuals or companies rather than things that serve the public good. Asked for specifics, she mentioned $491-million that's been allocated to help CSX improve its rail system.

That's a for-profit company that has made profits, Dockery said, and it should use its own money to upgrade its infrastructure. "That's one."

Fiorentino, a former lawmaker, held out some hope that the Legislature will follow through on such ideas.

"It is my understanding that the Legislature will be meeting in early March to address the state's budget issues. During this time, I hope they will continue to prioritize our children and their education by ensuring that school districts are spared any decrease in revenue that results from the passage of this constitutional amendment," she said in a prepared statement.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.