Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Education

Consultant advises Hillsborough school district to shed more than 1,700 jobs

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District can save $404 million over five years, a consultant says. But to do so, it will need to phase out 1,761 front-line jobs, more than half held by teachers.

"We are trying to avoid any types of layoffs," said chief of staff Alberto Vazquez.

Instead, he hopes retirement and attrition can get Hillsborough closer to the levels recommended by the Gibson Consulting Group.

What's more, he added, the study did not take into account the thousands of new students who are expected to enter the district this coming year, bringing in more state revenue but also adding expenses. "You and I know that people are moving into Florida," he said.

Still, on paper, the recommended cuts are dramatic: 450 custodial workers, 184 secretaries, 77 bus drivers and 20 bus driver aides.

Gibson also contends that, compared to similar districts, Hillsborough has 1,030 too many teachers, and should adjust.

The recommendations are just that, Vazquez said, and nothing will be decided without careful consideration. District officials are meeting this week with their two labor unions.

The study "will guide a lot of these conversations," he said. "And I'm looking forward to the conversations because the numbers are in front of us now."

Gibson was hired late in 2015 after Jeff Eakins, then new as superintendent, learned the district was rapidly depleting its reserves. Through a variety of cost-cutting measures, Vazquez estimated district officials have already slashed their operating deficit from $110 million to about $4 million. "We're aiming to close the books with a balanced budget," he said.

The Gibson project was intended to give administrators what they are calling "a deeper dive" as they plan for the future.

It's a sensitive process. In addition to educating more than 200,000 students, the district is one of the largest employers in the Tampa Bay area, with a workforce of 27,000. More than 14,000 of those employees are teachers.

Despite that role, Vazquez said the district cannot fully support the economy unless it makes the best use of tax dollars.

"Ultimately, the good that comes out of this is going to impact students in a positive way," he said. Even if the district implements only 75 percent of the recommendations, it will realize a $300 million savings and "it allows us to do more for students."

Reducing the teacher ranks would generate roughly two-thirds of the savings, which would grow to $98 million annually over time.

In comparing Hillsborough to districts in Pinellas, Orange, Duval and Palm Beach counties, Gibson found Hillsborough had one teacher for every 14.7 students while the rest of the sample had one per 15.9.

Among the reasons: Until Eakins took over, Hillsborough was especially rigid with state-mandated class size limits. Schools offer many speciality classes with low enrollment.

And not mentioned in the report: Hundreds of new jobs were created during Hillsborough's partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The savings from shedding 1,030 teaching positions would be "massive," Gibson wrote. "At an average salary and benefits level of $64,246, this equates to $66 million per year."

Gibson also contends that:

• The district has 156 too many clerical workers in its administrative offices. Part of this bloat comes from a reluctance to use basic technology for voice mail, attendance and payroll.

And the problem doesn't end downtown. Elementary schools have 28 more secretaries than they need. Bringing clerical staffing in line can save $6.1 million a year. One solution would be to change some of the secretaries' job descriptions and titles, and have them report to multiple managers.

Schools will have more leeway, based on their communities' needs. But in the central offices, "we won't be hiring new secretaries any time soon," Vazquez said.

• Hillsborough's 1,412 custodial workers are under-performing, largely because they work during the day when children are underfoot. They clean an average of 15,300 square feet, well below the 22,500 square foot industry standard. They report to principals; Gibson says they should report to zone supervisors.

Recommended changes would result in 450 fewer janitorial jobs. Even after hiring more supervisors and new equipment, the district would save $10 million a year.

As with secretaries, Vazquez does not foresee layoffs. But he acknowledged that if shifts are changed from day to night, some workers will leave.

• The transportation department has numerous inefficiencies that consultants have documented for years. A big problem is "courtesy busing" for students who live within two miles of a school. With some exceptions, such as a documented hazard in walking to school, the state does not cover courtesy busing from its transportation funds.

Phasing out courtesy busing for middle and high school students could save $9.5 million a year, Gibson wrote.

Gibson also flagged high overtime costs, an issue the district addressed this school year. And school bell schedules make it impossible for some drivers to cover three schools in a day. That problem gives the district 77 more routes than it needs.

A district committee already is reviewing the bell schedules.

The report also contained recommendations to address a high rate of absenteeism and cut the amount of time drivers are paid for doing things other than driving.

Such issues would have to be negotiated with the drivers' union. Combined with the courtesy busing cuts, resolving them could save $16 million a year.

Gibson did not consider the district's executive ranks, which, according to this year's payroll, had 91 employees earning more than $100,000 a year. Collectively, they earned $10.5 million.

Instead, Gibson looked at work groups that are large in number — even though the individual workers, in some cases, earn wages near poverty level.

Calculations by the Tampa Bay Times show clerical workers earn an average of $26,000, with those in the district's administrative offices earning about $7,000 more than those in the schools.

Custodial workers earn an average of $21,000 a year. Transportation workers earn $20,000.

Vazquez said later phases of the study will examine executive staffing and other matters, including schools that are well under capacity.

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

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