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Pinellas School District looks to restrain spending

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CLEARWATER -

As Pinellas County School officials start preparing next year's budget, they're looking to scale back on spending habits, primarily by cutting teachers and instructional programs.

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.

Cutting 65 teaching positions would save $3.9 million, though the district has plans to hire 25 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 years past, forcing them to depend on stimulus and reserve funding. Early projections for next year show that tax revenue and budget numbers could be increasing, said Superintendent Michael Grego, but the school district is looking to spend less and build up reserve funds.

Based on state estimates, the school district's estimated revenue for the 2014 fiscal year is $788 million, and the estimated revenue for the 2013 fiscal years is $750 million. Exact figures won't be known until the fiscal year ends 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 year-long “analytical process” that is more focused on making sure each department is spending it's money in the most efficient way instead of making cuts to fit that year's budget, Grego said.

In addition to adding more spending 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.

The staff reductions were 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 proposal.

“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.

Timing of any staffing changes, however, could pose major problems, said Bruce Proud, executive director of the union that represents Pinellas instructional and support professionals. The potential cuts to PE instructors and teachers 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.”

But School Board member Rene Flowers said school district officials are doing everything they can to make sure even if positions are cut, people will remain employed. “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,” she said.

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