CLEARWATER — Well-maintained schools will always be a priority, but they shouldn’t be a drain on the budget, Pinellas County School District leaders said.
After comparing its expenditures last year to 13 other comparable districts throughout the state, Chief Financial Officer Kevin Smith found Pinellas was second only to Lee County, which has about 22,000 fewer students, in the amount it spends to keep buildings open, comfortable and safe.
About 10 percent of Pinellas’ operating budget, or $76.6 million, was spent on the “operation of plant services,” which covers employees ranging from maintenance workers to school police, while Pasco spent about 9 percent and Hillsborough spent about 7 percent.
“Our numbers by themselves aren’t that terrible, but when you look at the other school districts it really jumps out,” Smith said. “That’s an area where, over the next couple months, we’ll need to see if there’s a more efficient way of delivering services ... I’m not saying it’s good or bad, just different and we need to analyze why.”
The school district may be able to shave $578,903 from the plant operations budget by March by eliminating and consolidating jobs, including many painter and stock clerk positions that are rarely needed or are vacant. Under the proposed changes, five school police officers would work only during the 10 months school is in session instead of the 12 months they now work. The other 18 officers would continue to work all year to patrol the summer programs. A school police department secretary and a part-time school officer position would be left vacant, a recommendation made by the schools’ police chief.
Eliminating the districts’ supply warehouse, which holds up to $4 million of equipment at any given time, and renting equipment instead from an outside company could save money, said Michael Bessette, associate superintendent of operational services. The district may explore giving gas cards to workers to fill up their vehicles at public gas stations instead of driving to the Walter Pownall Service Center in Largo.
Other school district budgets shouldn’t dictate where or how Pinellas spends its money, but they do provide an “objective view” of its priorities, Superintendent Michael Grego said.
“We still want clean, safe buildings, but what does that take, how long does that take and how many people does it take to do those things?” Grego said. “I looked recently at stats from the Department of Education and found that our staffing is generally a little bit higher than the state average ... so these are all things we’re going to be comparing and taking a look at.”
Grego said the analysis shows the district’s other budget priorities are “going in the right direction.” Last year, 66 percent of its operational budget, $512 million, and 51 percent of its federal funding, $36 million, went to direct classroom instruction. The combined $548 million represents about 65 percent of the district’s total budget. Hillsborough and Pasco each spent about 61 percent of their total budgets on classroom expenditures, while the highest percentage was 66.2 percent in Sarasota County.
This is the most money Pinellas has spent on classroom expenditures since 2010, and “well exceeded our goal” of driving more money into student instruction, School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said.
“We’re moving in the right direction because, as opposed to a few years ago, we want to be more in the middle of the pack instead of having the most expenditures,” Cook said. “For the most part, we’re right on trend.”
Pinellas was 10th out of the 13 comparable districts in the money it dedicates to its School Board, only 0.15 percent of the budget, and spent the least of any school district last year on instruction-related technology, at only 0.3 percent. Grego said the technology numbers were low because library media specialists took on the job of technology specialists last year — filling both jobs with one person instead of two as in other school districts. Pinellas is still “on track” with the amount of computers and online learning tools being integrated into the classroom, Grego said.
While Pinellas didn’t lead the state in any particular spending category — for the most part it stayed around the middle in sixth place — Hillsborough spent the most on instructional technology and community service projects and Pasco spent the most on instructional media and school administrators.