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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Pinellas schools looking to cut teaching positions

CLEARWATER - Pinellas County Schools officials are eyeing more teacher cuts as they begin preparing next year’s budget and looking for ways to reduce spending. More workshops are scheduled for July, and a final budget won’t be ready until September; but school district officials last week identified at least $16 million in possible cuts. Eliminating 65 teaching positions would save $3.9 million, though the district has plans to hire 25 new teachers to comply with class-size requirements. Eliminating 27 physical education teachers and assistants would save another $955,400, according to preliminary budget figures. Changes to exceptional student education programs, including closing one of three special education schools and shuffling students, would save $6.5 million. Of that, $4.7 would come from job cuts and reassignments.
Falling property tax revenues have cut into the school district’s budget in recent years, and the school district has used federal stimulus money and reserve funds to make ends meet. Early projections for next year indicate revenues could be increasing, but district officials want to cut spending and build back their reserves, said Superintendent Michael Grego. Estimated revenue for the 2013-2014 fiscal year is $788 million, compared to the $750 million the school district is expecting this fiscal year. Exact figures won’t be known until after the fiscal year ends on June 30, said school district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra. “We’ve gone through some really difficult years,” Grego said. “Next year will absolutely be better, but this is also the time to make sure we’re living within our means. We’re not just making cuts for the sake of cutting, but we do have to understand how money is spent so there are no surprises.” Going forward, the school district will make budgeting a yearlong process that is more focused on making sure each department is spending its money in the most efficient way instead of making cuts to fit that year’s budget, Grego said. In addition to adding more research to the budget process, for the first time the school district is also letting school principals weigh in on what resources are most important and what they can live without. “We met with each principal and told them, ‘Don’t leave this room if you feel like you cannot operate your schools with this plan,’” Grego said. “Our principals are really taking on an ownership role and taking a hard look at what they need, and you can’t have ownership without accountability. “I’d like to put a chicken in every pot, but we just have to be careful that we’re getting that return on investment.” The proposed staff reductions are based on analyzing how departments are spending and how other school districts were able to save money. Teachers who find themselves out of a job could likely find employment in another position within the school district, Grego said. Overall, School Board members are supportive of the proposed cuts. “For years I’ve been saying, ‘It’s not how much we cut, it’s how we use limited resources,’ and I am thrilled to hear that this is finally how we’re going about it because that’s what we really needed,” School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said. The timing of the proposed staffing changes, though, could pose major problems, said Bruce Proud, executive director of the Pinellas County teachers union. The potential cuts to physical education instructors weren’t announced until after teachers completed the voluntary and involuntary transfer process at the end of April. “Now we have individuals that are being displaced and wondering what options are gong to be available to them,” Proud said. “There’s still a process of retirees that may be announced, and people may leave to go to other places; so we’re not panicking at this point, but we’re concerned about those individuals that may feel compelled to take a position in an area where they’re not currently certified.” Becoming recertified in a new teaching area could require 300 hours of coursework and requires teachers to pass a test they have to pay for, Proud said. Preparing for the test will take studying, and studying takes time and effort that could take away from preparing lessons for the year, he said. School district officials are doing everything they can to make sure even if positions are cut, people will remain employed, School Board member Rene Flowers said. “I don’t think we’re going to make anybody happy in this at all,” Flowers said. “I still want to hear more from the principals about what they really need and want us to take all due diligence to make sure we don’t cut jobs.” Basing departmental budgets on an average of the previous three years’ expenditures is expected to save the school district $2.3 million. A review of departments’ budgets found that most were allocated more money than they were actually spending. Energy-saving measures, such as monitoring how long lights are left on in schools, could save another $1 million. The state will increase K-12 education funding next year by a little more than $1 billion, but that funding also comes with spending mandates, including $480 million that will go for teacher pay raises. At the same time, the federal stimulus money the district has been using to plug budget holes is running out. Federal stimulus money accounts for $1.8 million of the 2012-13 budget, down from $9.9 million. “We’re taking a broader look at our finances, so I think we’re on a good track right now,” School Board member Janet Clark said. “We knew we wouldn’t have enough money after the … [stimulus] money stopped; we knew we’re facing budget shortfalls, so we’re trying to save for it. But it’s still early in the process, so things will get clearer quickly.”

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