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Pasco school district faces $7.4 million shortfall

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The Pasco County School Board faces a $7.4 million revenue shortfall for the 2015 fiscal year, a deficit that must be addressed even as the school district is trying to beef up its teaching and support staffs by adding about 305 jobs.

“We’ve got a lot of tough decisions to make when I am staring $7.4 million in the face,” Superintendent Kurt Browning said Tuesday morning during a budget workshop.

The school district will need to whittle the shortfall to zero, Browning said, and that will require “a lot of hard work” between now and July 22, when the board will advertise its tentative budget in preparation for a July 29 public hearing.

Browning said he will make recommendations to the board next week on staffing allocations, but at the workshop he provided board members a two-page draft showing jobs he proposes adding or eliminating, for a net increase of 305 positions. The school district employs about 9,500 people.

The increase includes an extra 94 classroom teachers, 15 of whom would work for Pasco eSchool, the district’s online school that has experienced a jump in demand for its services. Most of the other teachers are needed to meet state class-size requirements, Browning said.

Although another tight budget year is projected, Browning said the extra jobs he is proposing are necessary to begin restoring the district to where it needs to be after struggling so many years during the recession.

“We did not get ourselves in this position in a year,” he said. “It took six years and we are not going to fix it in one year.”

Board member Joanne Hurley questioned whether the district might be adding too many positions too quickly, especially since the board just went through those roughly six years of making massive spending cuts, in some cases eliminating jobs and laying off people.

In 2010, for example, the district had to find about $28 million in spending cuts and it would have been much worse except Pasco schools received more than $20 million in federal stimulus money.

“We don’t doubt that you have been severely stressed,” Hurley told department directors and supervisors who attended the workshop. “When I went back and looked where we were in 2010, that was a horrendous year. We are not doubting you need people.”

Hurley described the board’s decisions in previous years to reduce staff as painful and she worries about “going back to where we were” and being in that painful position again.

“It just seems to me where there is a need for all these people, we need to be judicious,” Hurley said. “I know you said we can’t fix it in one year, but it seems like you are trying to.”

The superintendent and his staff said many of the positions he proposes adding would essentially pay for themselves, in some cases by allowing the district to cut spending elsewhere.

For example, the Food and Nutrition Services Department plans to add 115 positions to help with vending services, which are being handled inhouse after the district ended a contract with the Coca-Cola Co. The department expects to generate revenue from vending, which should help offset the cost of the added manpower, said Julie Hedine, the department’s director.

Also, she said, the department doesn’t expect to hire 115 extra people to fill all those positions. Instead, some current employees will take on additional hours.

Two professional standards investigators would be added to the employee relations department, which handles problems with employees and has seen an increase in its workload, Browning said.

“If we had employees that never broke laws, never did stupid things, we wouldn’t need two more people,” Browning said.

Employee relations will be taking on some of the legal work that previously was contracted out to help offset the addition of those two investigators, he said.

The district also would add a manager of communications and government relations. That person would assist communications director Linda Cobbe, work with the school volunteer program and track legislation in Tallahassee.

Some of the money for this position would be offset because the previous supervisor of volunteer programs had not been replaced. In addition, the district would be able to save $25,000 a year by dropping the Tallahassee lobbying firm it hires, Browning said.

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