Thursday, December 14, 2017

Budget woes force the Hillsborough school district to rethink its role as a job provider

TAMPA — At one time or another, five members of Carrie Williams' family have worked for the Hillsborough County School District.

Three still do, all at Shaw Elementary School in North Tampa.

Ashley Williams, 28, is a secretary. Savon Williams, 23, is an assistant teacher. Their mother, 47, is the principal's secretary.

"I trained them not to call me 'Mom' at work," said Williams, a school district employee since 1999.

Such loyalty to an employer is rare in today's workplace. But it's a big consideration as district leaders contemplate how to balance a lopsided budget without striking a blow to the economy.

No employer in the Tampa Bay area provides as many jobs as the district, with the latest head count at 26,000.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins recently told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board he was proud that, in a year of severe cost-cutting, he laid off only 10 employees.

More recently, School Board member April Griffin recalled how, unlike other districts, Hillsborough weathered the 2007 recession without layoffs.

"I remember sitting at a table and saying that we're the largest employer in this community," Griffin said during a June 8 workshop on the budget. "And if we start laying employees off, then this community is going to suffer because people will not be paying their mortgage."

She added: "People will not be paying their property taxes. Then it will further hurt our budget as a school district. People wouldn't be going to restaurants and shopping and purchasing things and that would hurt the economy even more."

But while officials are squeamish about cutting jobs in a community that relies so heavily on them, Eakins has come to realize he might have to do just that.

The Hillsborough district is about 7,000 students smaller than Broward County's, but has 1,500 more employees, Eakins told the School Board. It's slightly larger than Orange County's, but has 3,500 more employees.

The Gibson Consulting Group, hired in 2015 to help stem alarming losses in the district's reserves, said Hillsborough had 1,000 too many teachers.

And, as Eakins pointed out recently, experienced teachers in Hillsborough earn thousands more each year than their counterparts in nearby districts. Payroll eats up too much of the budget, he said — 84 percent. Elsewhere it ranges between 75 and 80 percent.

How to bring those numbers down is an issue on which there is no clear consensus. "It won't be easy," said Scott Brown, chief economist for Raymond James Financial.

Another, longer budget workshop is scheduled Tuesday.

Brown said Griffin made good points about the public sector's role in an economic slowdown. "If you look at past recessions, what you find is that government provides some base level of support," Brown said.

"When consumer and housing markets soften, you still have police, teachers and firemen, and those people are still getting paid and still spending their money."

The last recession was different. Governments shed workers, which weakened the economy even more.

At the same time, he said, the district must look realistically at staffing, especially if enrollment does increase. That variable is hard to measure, as in recent years independent charter schools have absorbed much of the population growth.

"Obviously a government is representing the citizens, which means the taxpayers, so you do have to keep an eye on the bottom line," Brown said. Protecting jobs in a recession is one thing. But "if there is a significant structural imbalance, then you might ask why and try to figure out what to do about it."

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough teachers' union, agreed that the district must strike a balance between supporting the economy and making the best decisions for students.

Technically, she said, it's not accurate to say the district doesn't lay anybody off, as many new teachers lose their jobs each year through a process called renomination, in which they are not invited back for a second year. "They would consider themselves laid off," she said.

A reluctance to shed workers illustrates the difference between the private sector, where workers are largely expendable; and the public sector, where job security is a big draw.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median length of private sector employment is 3.7 years. In the school district, it's seven years.

The workforce includes bus drivers who have been on the job since the 1980s and earn $29,884 a year. There are cafeteria workers who, after more than a decade, make $15,465.

Williams, the secretary, said she started working at Shaw Elementary while her children were students there.

"I love the school. I love the kids," she said. "Some of them went to the school, got married and now have kids there, and I get to see the whole thing."

Principal Rachel Walters said Williams and her children are "great people, good to the core. They put other people first. They are everything you would want in employees."

The ability to understand and forge relationships with parents is important at a school, Walters said. Unfortunately, such qualities are not always taken into account when the district makes cuts to meet budget.

"We've had quite a bit of turnover with teachers," she said. "But the support staff has remained fairly stable, and it's nice to have someone who knows the community."

Williams said it would be "devastating" if she or her children lost their jobs, as it would be for anybody. She said she is praying for the workforce.

"I'm a God-fearing woman," she said. "And I know God will take care of us."

Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol


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