Measures needed to address $25 million shortfall
By B.C. Manion
Facing an estimated $25 million shortfall, Pasco County School board members have started to identify ways to plug the budget hole.
Board members were set to vote at their June 5 meeting on a proposal that calls for trimming 87 positions from the district’s staffing allocation.
That’s the number of positions Superintendent Heather Fiorentino recommended cutting during a May 25 school board budget workshop.
Eliminating 87 positions, however, doesn’t represent the actual number of employees who will lose their jobs because many staffers will be reassigned. There will also be departures because of attrition.
School board member Alison Crumbley said she has discussed the issue with district staff who informed her they believe they can eliminate the vast majority, if not all, of the 87 positions without handing out pink slips.
Cutting those positions is expected to yield about $3.6 million in savings.
But the board also has directed the superintendent’s staff to look for additional positions that could be cut, said Summer Romagnoli, school district spokeswoman. She said a list of affected positions will be released after the employees are notified.
One of the reasons the job cuts are needed is the district must add 107 positions to meet state-mandated class size requirements, Romagnoli said.
The district can’t afford to hire that many additional people, so it must shift personnel and make budget cuts to cover additional costs, said Joanne Hurley, the school board’s chairwoman.
Beyond reducing personnel allocations, the board is also eyeing several other cost-saving measures to balance its budget. Options include furlough days, requiring employees to help cover the costs of benefits and cutting salaries — all of which would require union negotiations.
Hurley said the board doesn’t appear to be anywhere near a consensus on how to proceed. She added board members need more information before deciding the district’s course.
The district would not be breaking new ground by requiring employees to cover a portion of their benefits or by reducing employee pay, Romagnoli said.
“We’re one of three school districts in the state that provide a fully-funded benefits package,” Romagnoli said. Many school districts already have cut employee pay to tackle budget deficits, she added.
A proposal to require three furlough days for all district staff would save slightly more than $5 million.
The district also is looking at narrowing the budget gap by using nearly $8.9 million in capital outlay funds to pay for property insurance. It is also considering reducing its reserves to a bare minimum, which would free up $3.9 million.
Those ideas are being explored, Hurley said, but she emphasized, “It doesn’t mean that any of these ideas is set in stone. None of this is ready for a vote. We are simply discussing what the options are.”
Crumbley said board members want to minimize impacts on classrooms when it makes its budget cuts.
However, Crumbley added, salaries and benefits for district personnel make up roughly 85 percent of the district’s budget; making it impossible to reduce such a large shortfall without affecting people.
Crumbley said she’s asked someone to research whether it would have a lesser impact on staff to reduce salaries or to have employees help pay for benefits. There may be tax implications that should be considered, she said.
She also wants the district to explore using retired teachers to volunteer as substitutes. It may not save enormous sums, but she said it might help.
“Personally, I think it’s worth trying,” Crumbley said.
She also wants the district to see if they the general public can contribute money to spend in specific areas, such as arts education.
Board member Cynthia Armstrong said there are no easy answers to resolving the budget gap.
“Nothing is off the table at this point,” Armstrong said. She added, “We’ve cut the fat. We’ve cut the muscle. Now, we’re down to the bone.”
However, Steve Luikart, another board member, doesn’t think the district has done all that it can to cut its fat.
He thinks the district’s transportation system can be more efficient by increasing the students who ride each bus and by trimming the number of people it has routing buses.
He also thinks the district could cut costs by being more energy efficiency.
Luikart said employees have been bearing the brunt of budget shortfalls for too long. He opposes salary cuts for anyone who has direct contact with students. He’s also against furlough days.
“We’ve been looking at the easy fix,” Luikart said. “We have got to look at being more efficient at what we do.”
Considerable debate is expected before any final decisions are reached. Two public hearings are required before the final budget can be adopted. One is expected in July and the other in September.
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