There wasn’t a parking space left at Rushe Middle School last night as parents, teachers, administrators and students turned out in droves to voice their opinions on how the Pasco County School Board should make cuts to accommodate an estimated $60 million budget shortfall.
Attendees came from Land O’ Lakes, Wesley Chapel, Odessa, New Port Richey and Zephyrhills mainly with the same message: Don’t eliminate the arts.
Music, arts and athletic programs are all under consideration for cuts. So, too, are staff positions such as teachers, administrators and support personnel. District officials have said that everything is on the table.
Summer Romagnoli, the school district’s spokeswoman, outlined the budget shortfall and explained what eliminating different programs could mean in terms of dollars saved. A four-day school week would save the district about $3.2 million. Cutting administrators would save $25 million. Getting rid of the music programs in schools represents a $5.8 million savings. Arts would save about $4.7 million. The list of potential cuts goes on and on.
“The choices they have before them are difficult,” Romagnoli said, adding that 86 percent of the district’s budget is spent on people.
The school board, she said, cannot make enough cuts to cover the anticipated shortfall without impacting people and programs.
“It’s a math thing,” she said.
The town hall meeting was held to solicit input on where to cut and what not to cut.
“I’m very passionate about my kids having opportunities,” Joanna Larson, a parent of a Rushe band member, told school district officials. “It’s the future of our children. They need those arts.”
School board chairwoman Joanne Hurley led the April 14 town hall meeting.
“I can tell you my personal preference is not to eliminate any one category,” Hurley told the crowd. “(Instead) take a little out of each. We’re going to do the best we can.”
Dozens of parents, students and teachers all signed up to speak. Many came out in defense of the arts. Some expressed concerns about potential funding cuts to other programs, such as the media departments and technology.
Students were among the most passionate speakers.
“Coming home to nothing … it sucks,” said Land O’ Lakes High School band member Charles Bennett. “With band it gives me something to do. You take that away. You take everything I have.”
Ideas for cuts offered by residents included chopping from the top, redoing the county’s purchasing contracts and looking at privatizing transportation and certain support services. Many mentioned the four-day school week idea as one they would support.
United School Employees of Pasco vice president-elect Kenny Blankenship told attendees they needed to voice their concerns elsewhere.
“We need to direct our concerns to the State Legislature,” he said. “We don’t stand up to our legislators. Public education is the most important job in the free world.”
Blankenship challenged audience members to contact their representatives. He also said it cost about $7,000 a year to educate a child and an estimated $35,000 a year to incarcerate one.
It was Oakstead Elementary School technology specialist Stephan Brown who asked the question on everyone’s mind.
“When are the decisions going to be made,” he asked. “I lose sleep at night.”
Answers won’t be coming any time soon.
“We’ll have some sort of decision by summer,” Hurley said, adding the school board has to wait until the legislative session in Tallahassee ends in May to determine how much funding will be cut.
USEP members will picket this afternoon in front of the Land O’ Lakes Library as part of their online Fired Up Fridays movement. In addition, they intend to rally with school board member Cynthia Armstrong April 18 starting at 5 p.m. That rally takes place on the corner of State Road 54 and Little Road in New Port Richey.