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    Schools running short about $12-million

    Pinellas district officials say they seek ways to plug the budget gap; some employees may be reassigned to the classroom, but none will be fired.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001


    LARGO -- Since the legislative session ended Friday, Pinellas school finance officials have pored over the state budget. They don't like what they see.

    Based on a preliminary analysis of the 2001-2002 state budget, Superintendent Howard Hinesley has told principals and other administrators that the district has to find $12-million to $13-million.

    That amount will be needed, Hinesley said, so the district can offer 2.5 percent raises (in addition to state-required $850 bonuses for teachers), continue to absorb increasing health insurance costs for employees and address growth and inflation.

    To find more than $12-million, the school district is:

    Directing district-level administrators to trim department budgets by 2 percent. In the budget and resource allocation office, for example, that means reducing travel and office supplies. Trimming department budgets by 2 percent will save about $500,000.

    Planning to relocate certified teachers who are not working directly with students in classrooms. For instance, teachers who are on special assignment, doing projects at the district level, could be returned to the classroom.

    The same could be true of other district-level employees and some support employees, such as technology and behavioral specialists. Part of the motivation to do this, budget director Doug Forth said, was a House bill requiring school districts to direct more money into the classroom.

    Expecting to leave some open positions open. Those jobs are primarily support jobs in district offices.

    Expecting to slightly increase local property taxes this year, from $8.433 to $8.638 per $1,000 in taxable property value. A portion of a school district's budget must come from local property taxes; $8.638 is the amount the state told Pinellas to levy this year. When combined with the annual expected increase in property values, it could result in a tax increase for residents of as much as 13 percent, according to a preliminary analysis of the state's budget.

    Reviewing how quickly special curriculum programs, such as Read 180 for struggling readers, can be expanded.

    "We're not doing anything to the teacher-pupil ratio, to the school discretionary money," Hinesley said. "This is all indirect costs."

    While there is no mistaking that things are grim, district leaders were careful to point out Monday that no budget decisions have been made. They said they do not know how many people might be moved back to the classroom or how many positions might stay unfilled -- but they stressed that no people would be fired.

    "There are no pink slips," Forth said.

    The district's budget staff and teachers union will spend the rest of the week trying to make sense of the state budget. One fact they know already: It's not as rosy as it seemed.

    While it seemed the state budget included a 6.2 percent increase in public school money, Pinellas officials said that number did not include an increase of 50,000 students statewide. By including those students, public school funding increased only 4 percent, Pinellas' chief business officer Lansing Johansen wrote to School Board members.

    Pinellas' share is closer to 3 percent, and most of that is committed to certain expenses, such as teacher training and materials.

    "We got no additional state money," Forth said. "It was all through local property taxes, which we're required to levy to get no money."

    Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, said the Legislature should be ashamed of itself. Not only will teachers feel pinched in the classroom next year, with less support staff, but Moore guesses that fewer will want to go into teaching, given the grim budget.

    "I don't think it's going to be catastrophic, except from a morale point of view," Moore said. "It is absolutely the most pathetic display of governing I have ever seen."

    A detailed report will be presented to the School Board at 9:30 a.m. May 15.

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