Friday, Nov 21, 2014

Digital learning drives Pinellas schools budget

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— With the school year and legislative season behind them, Pinellas County school officials are planning for the ever-increasing bill the 2014-15 school year will bring.

The upcoming school year will be the first under a new set of education standards, called Florida Standards, that require classrooms, testing and even student homework to be technology-driven. Pinellas has an estimated operating budget of $880 million, about $20.9 million more than last year.

However, much of that increase is earmarked for specific initiatives like boosting technology. Of the estimated $350 million the district will receive next year in state revenue, about $215.1 million, or 61 percent, has to be spent on specific programs and initiatives.

By the 2015-16 school year, all K-12 instructional materials must be available in an electronic or digital format, and half of all instruction has to be delivered digitally.

“Even though we may have an increase of $20 million in revenue, only a percentage of that is allowable for us to spend it where we really need it and the rest is tied up in other areas,” Superintendent Michael Grego said. “That’s the part that ties the hands of school boards.”

School board members got their first draft of the 2014-15 budget at a meeting Tuesday, and the first public hearing is scheduled for July 29.

This is the first year the state Legislature dolled out a Digital Classrooms Allocation to each school district, a total of $40 million for the 2014-15 school year. Of that money, about $1.08 million will go to Pinellas classrooms to bolster technology, however individual schools or the school district sees fit.

Pinellas will spend the largest share of its money — $481,000 — on online assessments created by Performance Matters. The school district also has allocated $360,000 for additional bandwidth, $240,000 for Internet access and $117,000 for the Decision Ed assessment program. About $75,000 must go to charter schools.

The school district also has set aside $3.6 million to purchase 3,791 computers, 2,500 for teachers and 1,029 for high school assessments and testing.

Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway elementary schools, which will open next year as “technology magnets,” will use the money they would have spent on textbooks and other paper resources to buy items such as iPads and laptop computers. At the new schools, instead of checking out regular books from the school library, students may borrow e-books to read on their devices.

“We don’t have an unlimited budget. We’re substituting a lot of the technology for copy machines and printers, so I think you’ll find that it’s a balance of our resources,” said Pat Lusher, the district’s director of library, technology, instructional materials and digital learning. “Staffing model wise, we have exactly what we need, and we’re focusing on putting our resources and dollars into the hands of students and teachers. We’ll be using a lot less paper.”

School officials have made a concerted effort to make budgeting “a yearlong process,” chief financial officer Kevin Smith said. The school district also has tightened it’s belt in recent years in anticipation of fewer state dollars and the increasing costs of district operations. For the 2013-14 school year, the district stands to have $1 million left over — a stark contrast from the 2011-12 school year, when it spent $32 million more than it took in. The projected 2014-15 budget shows the school district having a $15 million surplus to rebuild its reserves.

“This is our financial goal: Spend every dollar once and spend it where there’s a return on that investment,” Grego said.

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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