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Pasco schools facing even bigger spending cuts

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LAND O’ LAKES -

Just when Pasco County School Board members thought they had a handle on the district’s $19.5 million budget shortfall, the situation grew potentially worse.

The board learned at a Tuesday afternoon budget workshop that the district may need to come up with as much as $7.9 million in additional cuts as it plans the 2014 fiscal year.

Olga Swinson, the district’s chief finance officer, broke that news after the board earlier in the day agreed to several cost-cutting measures, including a controversial plan to merge three positions – media specialist, technology specialist and literacy coach – into one job.

Board members unanimously approved that plan, recommended by Superintendent Kurt Browning, even though some of them expressed reservations.

“I’m not sure why we aren’t waiting to look at a slower transition period,” board member Steve Luikart said.

He suggested the district could instead try the job merger at some schools and collect data on how well the move improves student learning.

Browning said he saw no reason to wait.

“I have data that shows our current plan is not getting us academically where we need to be,” he said.

As an example, Browning said each year about 900 Pasco third-graders must repeat the grade because of low scores on the reading version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The plan for the new merged job was expected to save the district nearly $4.9 million, Additional proposed cuts by Browning included, among other things, elimination of several other jobs, failing to meet the state’s class-size requirement and savings from temporary closures of Shady Hills Elementary and Quail Hollow Elementary.

The proposed cuts totaled about $19.6 million, potentially allowing the district to slightly surpass its target goal of $19.5 million.

That didn’t last long.

Already, Swinson and Browning had been reviewing how recent actions by the Legislature could affect the district financially.

Among their concerns: A change in how per-student funding is handled for online classes could cost the district $3.4 million. Retirement costs could increase $6.2 million. Changes to the dual enrollment program – in which high school students take college classes – could potentially cost the district $2 million, although that one is still unclear.

Also, the Legislature’s budget includes money to provide raises for teachers, but the school district would need to come up with an additional $3.5 million to give similar raises to other school employees, such as custodians, cafeteria workers and bus drivers.

Although the state’s overall funding for Pasco has increased, the additional costs total more than the extra revenue, Swinson said, putting the district about $5.9 million to $7.9 million in the hole, depending on how the dual enrollment situation works out.

“I don’t know how we get there,” Browning said at the budget workshop.

Board members indicated a willingness to try, worrying that employee morale could suffer if teachers receive raises but other employees don’t.

Board members said finding more cuts won’t be easy or painless, though.

“It’s going to mean some more hard cuts and it’s going to make some people unhappy,” board Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said. “We are going to be getting more emails.”

But Armstrong also said that at some point “you have to say this is how much money we have to spend and that’s all there is.”

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