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    Schools struggle to cut costs

    Pinellas tries to trim $12.8-million from the budget without letting the effects show up in classrooms.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001

    LARGO -- Oak Grove Middle School is probably going to lose one of its dropout prevention instructors. Clearview Avenue Elementary School is going to lose some of its front-desk help. Largo High School has the equivalent of two teachers to lose, and the principal just can't decide what the school can do without.

    "It's just a real tragedy that when schools have worked so hard to bring ourselves up to a higher level and now it's pulled out from under us," said Largo High principal Barbara Thornton, who had used the two teachers to lower class sizes for students struggling with reading and math. "People get discouraged over that."

    From the smallest elementary school all the way to the superintendent's office, Pinellas schools are trying to find $12.8-million to balance the budget.

    All schools will lose 10 percent of their discretionary budgets, used for classroom supplies and other school needs. Some schools will have to go without achievement or technology specialists. All district-level departments are cutting 2 percent of their budgets, meaning many employees will lose training trips and unlimited access to paper clips, paper and pencils. With employees being shifted from offices to classrooms, more workers will have to take on extra responsibilities so services don't get cut.

    The district got a fraction of the money it received from the state last year, and millions are needed to fund cost-of-living raises, increasing health-care costs for employees and ballooning gas prices, among other budget needs. Final decisions on the budget won't be made until the fall, but Superintendent Howard Hinesley wants the schools to prepare for the cuts.

    Hinesley and other administrators stressed that no one is being fired because the district has plenty of jobs to fill. But dozens could be moved around, primarily from district-level special assignments or school-based projects to classroom posts. At a budget workshop Tuesday, School Board members reacted angrily to the gloomy details of the 2001-2002 budget: 2.5 percent raises for all employees, with teachers getting an additional, one-time bonus of $850. The district will continue to foot the increasing costs of health insurance for its employees, but that likely will change after next year.

    "We're going the wrong way," said board member Jane Gallucci. "How do you recruit teachers to a state that doesn't support them?"

    The district is looking for the nearly $13-million for two reasons: half is for raises and inflation, the other half is being mandated by the state. The state has ordered all districts to direct more money into the classroom; how much depends on a set of criteria the state developed.

    Pinellas is being forced to shift $5.6-million directly into the classroom because the state says it failed one of the guidelines: The district is holding back too many students.

    That frustrated board members who said they are retaining more students because of a state directive to curb social promotions. Putting salt on the wound, the state will require Pinellas to buy a newspaper advertisement saying it failed to meet one of the state's performance standards.

    "That's just so deceiving," said board member Carol Cook.

    Board members were also annoyed that the state's definition of direct classroom spending is putting more money into teachers and teachers only. What about the technology specialists, guidance counselors and media center specialists who help and teach students daily?

    "That should be the theme: loss of local control in decisionmaking," Hinesley said. "That should be your decision."

    While board members discussed sending letters to legislators and other state officials about their budget troubles, principals on Tuesday were in their schools trying to make tough decisions.

    Hinesley notified principals Thursday that they had one week to figure out how to make cuts. They were supposed to work with their staffs and parents and had only a few guidelines: No pink slips. No cutting classroom teachers. No cutting core personnel, such as guidance counselors and media specialists. And no axing someone just because they are not well-liked.

    The cost-cutting exercise has left schools and their staffs tension filled and bummed out. At Oak Grove, where the school might lose one of its three dropout prevention instructors, principal Patricia Browne said the services will continue to be provided in other ways.

    But she is disheartened that the state has put her in this position.

    "The staff is really not willing to give up a media specialist or a guidance counselor or a technology specialist because that impacts the entire school," Browne said. "Although I see the vision of the Legislature, that they want more resources at the classroom level, I believe they don't understand the supporting resources teachers need. Teachers can't do it on their own anymore."

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