Saturday, February 24, 2018
Education

Eakins: Hillsborough schools budget will be 'very tight' if state legislation is signed into law

TAMPA — Strapped for cash even before the Legislature voted this week to skimp on per-student funding, Hillsborough County's public schools are now bracing for more bad news.

The state's proposed new budget could slow initiatives designed to help students meet graduation requirements, and even lead to a hiring freeze, superintendent Jeff Eakins said Wednesday.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Population growth will mean more debt and painful rezoning for Hillsborough schools

"We know that it's going to be very tight. It's going to be extremely tight," Eakins said in an interview. "If our anticipated expenses exceed our revenue coming in, we're going to have to make some decisions that will balance our budget."

Despite eleventh-hour pleas from superintendents and elected school boards, the Legislature on Monday night adopted a sweeping schools bill that lowers per-student funding statewide by $27.

The Legislature also put restrictions on how districts can spend federal anti-poverty money under the Title I program. In Hillsborough, that amounts to roughly $60 million a year.

While the money won't be lost, the bill — if signed into law — will require the district to give much of the Title I money directly to schools, including charter schools, instead of using it for districtwide initiatives that help some of the neediest students.

Like other officials around the state, Eakins is awaiting details from legislative staff and the governor's office. He said he hopes some of the changes can be reversed through a veto by Gov. Rick Scott.

But he said he does not believe the Legislature will allow Scott to veto the entire bill, meaning the basic funding formula would likely survive. While growth is expected to bring in more money next year, an increase in costs to the state retirement system will more than wipe out those gains, Eakins said. "So now you're back to negative."

Eakins did not have specifics on what could be cut. "Maybe we do temporary freezes until we know how all our numbers play out," he said. "We don't know yet until Aug. 10 (the first day of school) how many students will be in our classes."

Nor will he know how many students will attend charter schools, which use state money but are managed independently, steering millions away from district coffers.

If Eakins freezes teacher hiring, it will be the second time in as many years.

During a drive to rebuild the reserve account in 2016, Eakins left classroom teacher openings vacant long enough to "redeploy" about 140 educators who had been promoted into specialist and coaching positions.

The crunch is happening at a time of monetary challenges for the district. After 18 months of spending controls to stop losses to the reserves in the main "general fund," Hillsborough learned recently it will need to spend at least $1 billion building schools for a growing population. That's on top of debt of about $1 billion from prior construction, and unfunded school repairs totaling almost $1 billion.

To fix the reserves problem, Eakins and his staff paid close attention to how they were paying the district's bills. In many cases, they were able to use federal and other supplemental funds to protect the general fund — in other words, transferring their spending. Title I, the federal money that the state now wants to restrict, was an important part of that strategy.

The district also saw its payroll costs increase sharply in 2014 under a new teacher pay plan that was negotiated during a teaching reform initiative.

In recent months, some School Board members have questioned whether that pay plan is affordable. It gives teachers who qualify a $4,000 raise every three years, which adds up to about $17 million.

"The one thing I have to emphasize is that negotiations are annual acts," Eakins said. "It's not just something that you can do four, five years in advance. You have to know the conditions you are experiencing at the current moment in time, and obviously a chief part of those conditions is your budget."

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers' union, said she has heard the complaints about the teacher pay plan and finds them misleading.

Even if teachers were to receive a modest pay raise, she said, "when you are talking about 16,000 people, you're still talking about millions of dollars."

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

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