Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014

Pinellas school district sees first budget surplus in years

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CLEARWATER - For the first time in years, a preliminary draft of the Pinellas County School District's budget for the upcoming school year isn't projecting drastic cuts. But with each small victory in the budget process comes another concern, such as teacher raises that won't meet expectations and insufficient capital funding, school board members said.

Board members and district officials will spend this week poring over the budget and posing questions before their July 16 workshop.

Although the school district has overspent since the 2011-2012 school year, it stands to bring in about $6 million more in 2013-2014 than projected expenditures with help from an additional $45 million from the state and "creative budgeting," school district Superintendent Michael Grego said.

The district spent about $9 million more than it brought in during the 2012-2013 school year, figures show. The 2013-2014 estimated revenue of $763 million is $37 million more than projected figures from 2012-2103, according to school district documents.

Budgets are "living documents" and continuously change as the year progresses, Grego said. But, the additional revenue expected next year will make it easier for officials to thoroughly analyze where money is spent. In May, that process identified about $16 million in savings that could be cut from the school district's expenses.

Though it is encouraging to see more money than expenses in the budget this year, the overarching concern is fallout from Gov. Rick Scott's efforts to increase teacher salaries statewide, said Bruce Proud, executive director of the Pinellas County teachers' union. Scott's budget proposed that each teacher receive a $2,500 raise next year, but the Legislature came up with a different formula based on merit and there is no mandate that every teacher get a raise. Pinellas County received about $18 million for salary increases - less money than needed for a $2,500 increase for all teachers.

"Things may be better, but I can't say that our budget looks good," Proud said. "It's the typical kind of budget in the state of Florida where the Legislature claims that there's a significant amount of new money attached, but when you really get down to the details it's quite a bit less. It creates this anticipation that things are better than they really are, and teachers start planning for extra money they won't have."

School board members have also urged Grego to contact state officials to get more information about why some of the funds targeted for salary increases must go to charter schools, leaving the district with $14.3 million to divide among the district's other teachers. The raises were meant to be based on performance, said school board Chairwoman Carol Cook, but teachers at new charter schools will also be eligible to receive increases - a decision she said "is just wrong."

"This is as backwards as evaluating teachers on students who they don't teach," said school board member Rene Flowers. "Now I'm providing you with an incentive that you haven't even punched in to earn."

Teachers could also get some help from a special property tax that pays for teacher salary increases as well as providing extra funding for reading and arts programs. Revenue from the tax should increase next year as property values improve in the county. Last year, the tax provided $2,852 per teacher and next year they'll receive $70 more. Of the $29 million the school district expects to receive from the referendum, about $23 million will go to teacher salaries.

Rising property values have also increased the value of school district properties that are on the market, said school board Vice Chairwoman Peggy O'Shea.

However, maintaining the buildings the district owns will be a struggle next year, O'Shea said.

Budget officials anticipate that this will be the third consecutive year the school district hasn't received any state Public Education Capital Outlay funding for capital projects. Pinellas County, unlike Hillsborough and Pasco, doesn't have a lot of room to build more schools, but many schools, such as Largo High School, need to be "bulldozed to the ground and rebuilt," O'Shea said. Construction projects at Largo High will cost the school district $10 million of the $90 million it has for capital improvements, which are primarily funded by local property taxes.

Until employee salaries have been negotiated with the teachers' union, concrete budget numbers won't be available, O'Shea said. School board members are expected to vote on the budget Sept. 10.

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

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