MANATEE -- As the Manatee County school district tries to climb out of the red, parents are expressing concerns about the personnel moves Superintendent Rick Mills is making.
Parents and community members opposed teacher cuts Wednesday at "Soup with the Supe" where Mills said he is "100 percent confident" staff reductions -- 182 teachers and 80 district office employees -- are necessary.
Parents, though, do not readily accept the loss of teachers. When her child's fourth-grade teacher at Anna Maria Elementary was fired, Karen Riley-Love started a petition to save teacher jobs.
Riley-Love has gathered 1,333 signatures from parents because she said cutting teaching positions is not the answer to district budget problems.
"The district should consider other alternatives," Riley-Love said. "Losing teachers is not acceptable."
Riley-Love said she is willing to raise funds to keep teachers. Tears welling in her eyes, she said she has contacted private donors and would hold fundraisers.
Parents say they are concerned their child's classroom experience will change for the worse in the fall after teacher cuts in special programs, physical education and the arts.
Mills said eliminating 41 positions in the school Rainbow program, with electives such as physical education and art classes, will not affect the program.
"There will still be a teacher in every classroom, and students will still have effective instruction," Mills said. "We are frankly overstaffed."
Mills said he can relate to people in fear for their jobs.
"This is painful for me, as I have had to re-apply for my job in Chicago," Mills said. "I know how it feels, and it tears me up inside, but we are on a fiscal cliff."
Mills said the district deficit is projected between $13 million to $15 million in next year's budget with nothing in reserve for emergency funding. He blames years of mismanagement, overspending and overstaffing.
Don Hall, assistant superintendent of operations, said the district must adhere to state-mandated class sizes. But the precise district enrollment will be unknown until students take their seats this fall, he said.
"No one knows at this point," Hall said. "It is everyone's best guess, which is why it is called a projection."
Hall said the district decided how many teachers to cut by using historical data and the state class size amendment. The district did not randomly select teachers to be cut, he said.
All first-year teachers and all one-year contracts, such as long-term substitutes, were not renewed.
Hall said that seniority is unfortunate in some cases.
"You can have one first-year teacher who gets cut that performs better than a teacher who has been working for three or four years," Hall said. "That part of it is the hardest for parents to understand."
Mills said financial recovery plan includes staffing flexibility with $2 million set aside in next year's budget to hire teachers as needed. Decisions about hiring more exceptional student education teachers will also be considered when students arrive in the fall.
Mills said September adjustments will be made after the 10-day count where the district counts how many students actually enroll.
The district must make sure it does not exceed the state cap, Mills said, nor should it risk bringing back teachers prematurely and be overstaffed again.
Riley-Love said she was not satisfied with the superintendent's response.
"I don't know what I expected, but I got the impression that the decision is already made," she said.
Citizen's advisory group Chairman Richard Conard supports Mills on teacher terminations.
"I am frustrated and angry with the shape of the school district," Conard said. "But we need to get in step and be supportive of the superintendent's decisions. We need to be critical in a constructive way."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.