Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Education

Hillsborough School Board hires auditor and buys 200 new buses

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TAMPA — Seeking to cure the Hillsborough County school district's budget problems and — in some cases — insulate superintendent Jeff Eakins from blame, the School Board voted Tuesday to hire an outside auditor.

Eakins wants to hire Gibson Consulting Group of Texas to perform an "efficiency review and audit." It is not yet clear how much the contract will cost, but the hope is that it will pay for itself with savings that result.

While Eakins suggested the move to do "a deeper dive" into the district's troubled finances, member April Griffin said an outside look is long overdue.

What's more, she said, some in the community and the media want to blame Eakins for spending of recent years that caused district reserves to shrink by more than $200 million.

"We have some people who are waiting for us to fail," Griffin told Eakins, assuring him that she holds him accountable not for the problem, but for the solution. Eakins became acting superintendent on March 6 and assumed the full title on July 1.

The reserve account, which had $146 million on June 30, is well above the legal minimum. But bond-rating firms in New York have expressed concern.

Much of the money has gone to pay raises under teaching reforms the district launched in 2009 in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates group was expected to supply $100 million, but is contributing only $80 million.

Eakins, who said he learned of the reserve issue in late June, wants to overcome a $142 million "hole" of ongoing expenses. Some of that should come into the district through $62 million in added state money, based on growth. But that number isn't certain, and much of it will go to charter schools. Eakins has already begun a number of measures that include a hiring freeze for nonessential, nonschool jobs and scrutiny of all contracts.

The audit process will take about six months. The board will be able to discuss the scope of work for the audit firm.

Officials also told the board on Tuesday that the district's transportation department is under multiple reviews. An official from the state Education Department was called in weeks ago in response to concerns raised by parents and general transportation manager Jim Beekman about driver training and customer service.

"These are issues that I've directed staff to fix and come up with solutions around," Eakins said.

Officials said those steps were taken before the accident on Sept. 17, when a bus from Bryant Elementary School went into a retention pond with 27 children aboard. The children all survived with only minor injuries, but the incident attracted attention to the over-aged buses and the district's system for training drivers.

Since then, the district has invited the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization of large urban school districts, to evaluate the transportation department.

The district has hundreds of buses that are 20 years old or older. To get some of them off the road, the board approved the purchase of 200 new buses from three manufacturers.

Earlier, Eakins reported progress in the district's efforts to suspend fewer students.

Overall, there was a 43 percent decrease in days of suspension between the first four weeks of the last school year and the same period this year.

The racial gap in suspensions between black and white students has narrowed by 4 percent.

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

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