By B.C. Manion
Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning is calling for big changes in the district to put a greater focus on student achievement and to help plug a $23 million budget hole.
The superintendent, elected in November, is facing his first round of budget cuts in a district that has faced giant deficits every year for six years. The cumulative impact has been $144 million in cuts with $53.2 million in actual cuts and about $91 million covered by nonrecurring revenue.
In announcing the reorganization, Browning said the district must put students first in setting its priorities.
He announced the series of changes he plans to make in a podcast to district employees:
—Cutting 56.5 media specialists and 33 literacy coaches
—Staffing school media centers with a media technology assistant
—Consolidating the Instructional Media and Technology Department into other departments
—Reviewing the organization of the Office for Teaching and Learning with a probable reallocation of positions
—Reducing staff in Adult Education, which will affect 10 high school adult secretary positions
—Moving administrators to different schools
—Consolidating ESOL resource and ESE staffing and compliance positions, which will cut 10 ESOL positions and 10 ESE staffing and compliance jobs while changing the way those services are delivered to schools
—Reducing staff as a result of the consolidation that has occurred in student services and exceptional education
—Closing Quail Hollow and Shady Hills elementary schools to enable renovations; while that work is being done, teaching staff will follow students; there will not be enough positions at those schools for the administrative and noninstructional personnel, so the district’s layoff/recall process will be used for those employees
At the same time, the district is planning to create a new position that would combine the functions of literacy, media and technology aimed at meeting the needs of 21st century learners, said Linda Cobbe, district spokeswoman. Plans call for creating 30 openings for that position.
Estimated savings from cutting the media specialists and literacy coach is about $5.6 million, Cobbe said. The district also would save about $1 million from cutting the compliance positions.
Adding savings achieved from those cuts to the operational savings that result from closing Shady Hills and Quail Hollow brings the total savings to about $8 million, Cobbe said.
When Browning announced the reorganization, he told district staff, “I know this will be hard for some of you to hear.”
But he went on to say, if the district wants what is best for kids, “we all must put aside our natural tendencies to resist change.”
While Browning has the authority to hire, fire and assign district staff, the school board will weigh in on his plan when they approve its budget.
School board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong and board members Joanne Hurley and Alison Crumbley said they want more information about the total budget picture before taking stands on specific issues.
“I always like to keep an open mind until we go through the budget workshops,” Armstrong said. “It’s fairly early in the budget process.”
Crumbley said she wants to get a handle on the bigger picture before making any decisions.
“Whatever I decide, it’s going to be what’s in the best interest of our students,” Crumbley said. “At this point, I’m still in the information gathering stage. I don’t even have the final numbers.”
Armstrong said much of what Browning is proposing is an attempt to grapple with the district’s budget shortfall.
“I’m going to reserve judgment until there is more discussion,” Hurley agreed.
The board will have many opportunities to discuss Browning’s proposals during budget workshops, Hurley said. “We will raise issues that are important to us.”
Hurley noted that the district has been cutting its budget every year, and the consequences are painful for employees, their families and students.
“Every decision that we make is more than a dollar and cents decision,” she said. “It’s a people decision.”
Hurley said she hopes people whose positions are cut will be able to find another spot in the district as jobs are vacated.
The budget position may change based on actions in the Florida Legislature, Crumbley said: “We may be getting more funds, so that’s going to affect the bottom line.”
Board member Steve Luikart said Browning appears to be making progress on his goal of being more efficient with fewer people: “I think he’s headed in that direction.”
But he doesn’t like Browning’s plan to move the media specialists out of the schools.
“I’m an old-school guy,” Luikart said. “Those people are very important to the school. They play a valuable role.”
Kris Keppel, a media specialist at Land O’ Lakes High, said he was joined by numerous people at a school board meeting who spoke for 75 minutes, urging board members to closely examine the services media specialists provide before deciding on Browning’s plan.
Keppel thinks board members would benefit from a media center field trip to find out firsthand the vital role they play at schools. He added that he and his colleagues do far more than simply help students conduct research and locate materials.
Media specialists help teachers with all sorts of technology needs. They also promote a love of reading, Keppel said, adding that reading comprehension is fundamental to academic success.
The school board should consider this issue from “the inside out, not the outside in,” Keppel said. They should listen to students, teachers and administrators to get a true picture of the role media specialists play in helping students learn, he added.
Browning noted that most, if not all, of the media specialists and literacy coaches are certified teachers, and he thinks they will be offered classroom teaching jobs.
Keppel, who has been a media specialist for 26 years, said he could make the transition back to teaching, but it would take quite a bit of preparation.
He wouldn’t be in the unemployment line, he said, but shifting the media specialists into teaching roles isn’t quite as simple as it sounds.
The Pasco County School Board has scheduled a workshop on board policies, the budget and the Affordable Care Act’s impact on the school district at 9:30 a.m. on April 2.
It also has set a budget workshop at 4 p.m. on April 16.
The workshops will be in the television studio in Building 3 at the District Office Complex, 7227 US 41 in Land O’ Lakes.