Budget gap narrows to $5.8 million for Hillsborough schools

TAMPA — Hillsborough County School District officials say they have found ways to fill most of a projected $28 million gap in their $1.7 billion operating budget for next year.

"We're still looking for $5.8 million, but that's doable," said finance director Gretchen Saunders during a School Board workshop Tuesday. "We are looking everywhere we can to save money."

How did they do it? State estimates of Hillsborough's retirement costs dropped by $30 million more than the district projected last month, she said, in connection with the Legislature's mandate that employees pick up 3 percent of their benefits.

While other projected costs rose over the past month, that windfall will help the district avoid the teacher layoffs or furloughs under way in other Tampa Bay districts.

Still, it's been a nervous month since the Legislature's decision to cut $100 million from the district's annual funding — $25 million more than Hillsborough budget planners had been expecting. That pushed state support down to 2001 levels.

And Saunders cautioned that her budget figures are little more than guesses right now, since property values and tax receipts could fluctuate over the course of the coming year.

"Numbers will change," she said. "Every hour it changes."

Hillsborough plans to spend all of its $41 million federal Education Jobs Fund grant to help balance its budget.

It will save another $4.6 million due to the Legislature's new definition of "core classroom subjects." That could raise class sizes in subjects such as physical education or the arts, but not by a lot, said board member April Griffin.

"This is a potential savings, but we're going to be very careful the way we approach it," she said.

The district will likely slash department budgets by 25 percent, saving $3.5 million; cut $2 million from its property insurance reserve; and reduce its emergency funds by $4 million.

Hillsborough also expects to cut about $3 million from its maintenance budget — a worrisome trend, said superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

"It's really forcing us to move off of our normal maintenance schedule of 20 to 25 years," she said. "We have the second-oldest inventory of school buildings in the state of Florida."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Budget gap narrows to $5.8 million for Hillsborough schools 05/24/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 2:02am]

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