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Hillsborough schools freeze teacher hiring amid austerity push

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District froze teacher hiring Tuesday, the same day superintendent Jeff Eakins took to YouTube to reassure the public that he is putting students first in all cost-cutting measures.

"Parents, you trust us to educate your children," Eakins said in the video, appearing next to chief of staff Alberto Vazquez. "That is a decision that you do not take lightly, and it is something that is at the forefront of our minds each and every day."

While about 140 vacancies exist in a teaching workforce of more than 15,000, district leaders said they can fill many of them with educators who have moved into jobs outside the classroom. The system has more than 1,000 resource teachers, subject coaches, success coaches and other employees who contribute to a teacher-to-student ratio that has been shown to be higher than in other districts.

"They're such all-stars, we want them in the game and not on the bench coaching," said community relations chief T.G. Taylor.

It's not yet clear who will fill the teaching vacancies, and union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins said she was not notified before the letter about the freeze went out.

"There are 100 unanswered questions," she said.

The district is trying to save $130 million this year in its general fund, the largest component of its $2.8 billion budget. Between 2011 and 2015, that fund's reserve lost more than $200 million, alarming the bond raters who impact the district's borrowing.

The district hired Gibson Consulting Group to find ways to save money, and that firm presented its latest findings Tuesday at a School Board workshop.

While commending the board on its five-year strategic plan and austerity moves already in place, consultant Greg Gibson said there is far more Hillsborough can do to make better use of technology and protect buildings that are in serious disrepair.

In a previous report, Gibson outlined nearly $100 million in yearly savings from cuts in the clerical, transportation, custodial and teaching divisions.

Those actions include the teacher hiring freeze, which could save up to $10 million.

Already, the district has cut dozens of secretarial jobs, also according to Gibson's recommendations, with the hope of eventually saving $6 million a year.

In addition, Gibson proposed saving $10 million in custodial costs, largely by shifting crews from day to night shifts. The first of those changes will begin shortly, Vazquez said Tuesday.

In transportation, the district plans to cut back on busing for students who live within two miles of their schools. Middle and high school students will see these changes when the 2017-18 school year begins. Elementary students will lose their so-called courtesy bus stops a year later, "so parents may plan," Vazquez said. Depending on how many stops are kept for safety reasons, those cuts could save about $5 million a year.

A huge savings — $66 million, Vazquez said — can be achieved by using latitude allowed by the state in determining class sizes.

As the board contemplates these changes, some members — chiefly Melissa Snively — have called for better communication.

"There's a disconnect," she said Tuesday. "It's almost like that telephone game that you play. The 'why' is not understood."

Eakins, Vazquez and Taylor said they are working on that issue. Tuesday's video — with a companion video in Spanish — will be followed by a longer one in advance of next Tuesday's board meeting.

As for the 'why,' Eakins said, "We have more expenses than revenues."

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

Hillsborough County School Superintendent Jeff Eakins at a news conference on his first official day as superintendent in 2015. On Oct. 11, 2016, he took to YouTube to communicate with the public about the district's efforts to tame its budget. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times]

Hillsborough County School Superintendent Jeff Eakins at a news conference on his first official day as superintendent in 2015. On Oct. 11, 2016, he took to YouTube to communicate with the public about the district's efforts to tame its budget. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]

Hillsborough schools freeze teacher hiring amid austerity push 10/11/16 [Last modified: Saturday, February 4, 2017 10:57am]
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