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Early news on school finances discouraging

District officials are worried about next school year because they say there is little, if any, extra money available for new projects.

By KENT FISCHER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 2001


LAND O'LAKES -- There's still two weeks left in the academic year, but Pasco County school officials already are warning of a budget crunch next year.

Pasco should get an additional $17.6-million -- a 7.3 percent-increase -- from the state next year, according to the recently passed state budget. School officials, though, say that once the district pays its bills, little of that money will be available for new projects.

Roughly $8-million will go toward hiring the scores of new teachers that the district will need to keep up with an enrollment that is expected to grow by 1,400 students. The district must spend that money just to keep next year's class sizes and programs on par with this year, said Chuck Rushe, the district's chief financial officer. The district also is opening three schools in August, and it'll need teachers and administrators and school supplies, too.

Another $4-million is tied up in state-mandated teacher bonuses and reward money for schools with good test scores.

That will leave about $5.7-million left over for other district initiatives, Rushe said. But even that money already is spoken for.

The school district is facing a 15-percent increase in its health insurance costs, which could total nearly $3-million. And the district already has committed $4.6-million to teacher pay raises, called "step increases."

That's more than $7-million; the district will only have $5.2-million to spend.

"It's going to be all we can do to cover the insurance costs and the step increases," Rushe said. "It's not shaping up to be a banner year."

Overall, Pasco is supposed to get $257,098,775 from the state, a 7.3-percent increase over last year. But when you factor out money earmarked for specific programs mandated by the Legislature, there is really only about 2.4 percent in new money, Rushe said.

Rushe and Superintendent John Long said they're not sure how much money will be available for teacher pay raises. Boosting the pay of every teacher just 1 percent costs the district $2.3-million, he said.

"On the face of it, (a 7.3-percent increase) sounds like a lot of money," Long said.

"But the Legislature pretty much tells us how we have to spend it. We're going to look for every available nickel."

- Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241.

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