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Ideas, Accusations Fly at School Board's 1st Town Hall Meeting

There will be four more meetings this week for public input on the district's $25.3 million budget shortfall.

The turnout for the first of with the Pasco County School Board was light, but those who did show up to John Long Middle School Monday night were passionate about their views.

About 35 people gathered in the school’s cafeteria, nearly half of them staff, board chairwoman Joanne Hurley acknowledged after the meeting.

The district is facing its fifth consecutive year of budget shortfalls, with a projected deficit of $ 25.3 million next year, spokesperson Summer Romagnoli said.

Where would you make cuts to the budget? Let us know in the comments section.

Romagnoli opened the meeting with a Powerpoint presentation that outlined the district’s challenges, including the loss of students, rising fuel and utility costs and state mandates such as class size requirements and extended school days in some schools.

The district faced a $4 million dollar fine from the state last year for not complying with class size regulations. It will cost the county $6 million dollars next year to comply.

Increases in retirement contribution rates also will impact the budget to the tune of just under a million dollars, Romagnoli said.

The series of town hall meetings this week were planned to gather input from county residents concerned about the impact of a budget deficit.

The school board knows what parents and the community support, and wants to keep those things too, Hurley said.

“There are no easy solutions out there,” Romagnoli said. “It’s impossible to cut this amount of money each year without it being felt by everyone.”

What’s left to be cut is controversial after four years of cuts. “There’s little left to work with,” Romagnoli said.

“We’re trying to be as transparent as we can,” Hurley said.

Several of those in attendance took the opportunity to address the situation, and a theme seemed to emerge from those who spoke: The school board needs to find ways to generate revenue.

“We want to make our county sustainable,” Robin Maltenfort said.

Maltenfort suggested more partnerships with local businesses, more efforts to obtain grants and making athletic programs club-based, rather than school-funded.

Renting gymnasiums and fields to club programs would save administrative  “headaches,” cut costs and generate revenue, Maltenfort said.

Richard Trout, “Mr. Choo Choo,” who runs the train at the Shops at Wiregrass, attended the meeting, not as a parent but as a local business owner.

“I have a passion, I love to help people, help children,” Trout said.

He suggested sponsorships from area businesses for competitions in different programs such as art, creating revenue by being creative with the students’ own talents.

“It would be a fun thing and also acknowledge their accomplishments,” Trout said.

One parent who spoke said that since the budget shortfall amoounted to roughly $400 per student, the school board should considering charging an annual enrollment fee, which could be offset with sponsorships for those who could not afford it.

Though most who presented ideas for bringing the community together to support the schools through donations, volunteer work and local business support, the meeting was not without contention. Joe Wammer spoke from the audience, refusing to take the microphone set near the front of the room.

Wammer demanded to know Hurley’s own ideas for solutions, and said he was appalled that 85 percent of the school’s budget is allocated for staff.

Bill Helm echoed that sentiment, accusing the board of begging the public for solutions, comparing the scenario to an individual asking his neighborhood association to help him decide where he should cut spending in his personal finances.

“We don’t get paid, you do,” Helm said.

Helm also said that the budget needs to be trimmed of “dead weight” teachers who don’t do their jobs.

Knowing that 85 percent of the county’s budget goes to paying teachers and staff frustrates him because he has difficulty getting his child’s teacher to take the time to meet with him, he said.

“We’re not begging for solutions, we’re asking you to tell us through your eyes what you see,” Hurley said.

As far as the comment about teachers, Hurley said she could not let that stand.

“I’m very proud of the staff we have in Pasco County,” she said.

Last year’s town hall meetings each drew about 600 people, Hurley said after the meeting. She wasn’t sure why the turnout was so low Monday night, and hopes more residents will show up to the remaining meetings.

“This is so worthwhile,” Hurley said. “You had parents and staff and students come out to talk about what’s important to them.

“I’m looking at it now through their eyes. That’s what’s valuable to me.”

Want to have your say? Here are this week's remaining meetings:

  • May 22 at 6 p.m. in the Hudson High School mini theater, 14410 Cobra Way
  • May 23 at 6 p.m. in the Trinity Oaks Elementary School cafeteria, 1827 Trinity Oaks Blvd
  • May 24 at 6 p.m. in the Centennial Middle School cafeteria, 38505 Centennial Road, Dade City
  • May 24 at 6 p.m. in the Chasco Elementary cafeteria, 7906 Ridge Road, Port Richey
don stephenson May 22, 2012 at 02:23 PM
Want to see some real solutions to our deficit? Visit http://www.stephenson4pasco.com and click on the "issues" section. I believe that anyone running for the school board, given our 5 years of consistent massive deficits, SHOULD be coming to the table with ideas on how to tackle this, our most significant issue.
Rene Van Hout May 23, 2012 at 01:58 AM
I would like yto see advertisments on the buses (approved by the board first, of course). It has worked for public transportation :o)
don stephenson May 23, 2012 at 02:34 AM
Absolutely correct, Rene. That's actually listed on my website under the "fiscal responsibility" section. Although it would likely net a smaller amount of revenue compared to some of the other tactics I'm recommending, each and every little bit helps. :)
Catherine May 25, 2012 at 08:32 PM
The district proposed this idea, but it's been rejected by the state legislature. I would like to know why Tallahassee rejected it. The schools are being bogged down with unfunded mandates and the problem is happening statewide. We need to look at the unfunded mandates and demand answers from Tallahassee as to how they can require schools to implement programs, but offer no means to fund them, and then require the schools to have a balanced budget. Also, how many times do they need to revise the FCAT and the curriculum that prepares students for it? Tallahassee needs to go back to school.
don stephenson May 29, 2012 at 01:23 PM
True, it was rejected by Tallahassee, but that's no reason for us to stop lobbying them to pass a bill that would make sense. Advertising on buses, although not the most desirable thing on earth, certainly makes sense to many people in this climate. Aside from that, I think you're spot-on. I find all these unfunded mandates to be simply mind-boggling. It's as if at some point the State forgot that the Counties are all parts of itself. And FCAT is simply a disaster. Accountability is good, but this is clearly broken.

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