The 2012-13 budget for the Pasco County School District appears to be in trouble. For this reason, the Pasco School Board is calling on the community for suggestions on what should be done through a series of “town hall meetings” hosted by members of the Board.

“We want to be accountable and efficient,” said Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley from the podium at the front of the Dr. John Long Middle School cafeteria on May 21. “We want you to be a part of that.”

Facing a fifth consecutive year of budget cuts, the Board must function with $25.3 million less than it had last year to best serve its 67,000 students and 9,000 employees. “We want your comments,” Hurley said. “I’m asking you to walk in my shoes. They’re not very big, but it is a tough job.”

The meeting began with a presentation from Pasco Schools spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli, which gave the 40 in attendance a brief overview of the District’s proposed budget, how the money was planned to be allocated and for which areas the District is mandated to set aside money. Romagnoli explained that last year, the District was able to use some of its reserves to offset the previous year’s $55.3 million in cuts, but that money isn’t available this year.

“When we set the budget, we are at the mercy of state mandates,” said Hurley (following the presentation, but before opening up the floor for suggestions from the public). The statewide Class Size Reduction Amendment, for example, which passed in 2003, has required schools to reduce the number of students in core classes, such as math, English or science, by two students per class per year. This mandate is expected to cost the District about $6.4 million this coming school year.

Robin Maltenfort, a physical education instructor at Centennial Elementary in Dade City, reminded the crowd that this problem isn’t just Pasco’s, it’s across the country.

“There is a two-part solution,” she said. “We can look at what we need to reduce, but we also need to look at how to become sustainable.”

Maltenfort offered the idea of a voluntary fund that parents could contribute to and also charging fees for certain programs, such as athletics and driver’s education.

“We can create revenue,” said Richard Trout, better known as “Mr. Choo Choo,” the mini-train conductor at the Shops at Wiregrass Mall. “The kids can have fun with it.”

Trout doesn’t have kids in Pasco schools, but says that he has a passion for helping people. He suggested setting up competitions for the students at the County’s tech schools and getting sponsorships from local businesses for those competitions.

Not all of the comments from the audience came as suggestions. Hurley received harsh criticism from two audience members, including Bill Helm of Seven Oaks, for not providing any literature, such as a copy of the current budget, for the attendees to scrutinize.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Helm said. He suggested getting rid of “brick and mortar” schools and putting teachers on webcams. He also criticized the Board for what he described as “begging the public for solutions. We’re not getting paid the big bucks to figure out this problem.”

Hurley insisted that the Board was not begging for solutions, but “asking for your opinion from what you see.” She concluded the meeting by commending the staff of Pasco schools for the job they do on a daily basis.

All of the questions and comments from the town hall meetings held throughout Pasco County the week of May 21-24 will be available on the school district’s website, as well as a list of the proposed budget cuts.

For more information, visit Pasco.K12.Fl.US.

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