BROOKSVILLE — Though it's getting smaller all the time, the Hernando County School Board's nearly $420 million budget is still a pretty big number to wrap your head around.
Wrangling those dollars takes a finely tuned mind and plenty of experience with arcane state and federal school funding formulas. An error can cost the public astonishing amounts of money.
So it is perhaps not surprising that district officials were dismayed last week by the number of applicants to replace the much-praised Deborah Bruggink in the key role of finance director.
And not one of them has done the job before in a public school district.
"I think part of that is due to our salary," said business services director Heather Martin, acknowledging the low response. "I've had some comments (from other school districts,) 'You're not going to find someone.' "
The advertised salary to run the district's finances was $66,572. Applicants with relevant experience could expect up to $75,650.
But the average salary last year in Florida for school financial officers was $92,568, with 24 of 67 counties paying more than that amount, according to the state Department of Education.
"If you open it up to a higher pay, do you open it up to a higher-quality applicant?" asked Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.
No salary increase
The School Board had a chance to raise its sights for the job at a board meeting last week, with a revised salary schedule that would pay the finance director between $78,675 and $98,225. But that was connected to a pay raise proposal for administrators that the board rejected due to budget concerns.
State cutbacks are expected to force the district to slash 10 percent or more from its already-strained budget next year. With Bruggink gone to a new job closer to family in Alabama, the 23,000-student Hernando district is sailing without a permanent finance chief. And superintendent Wayne Alexander has announced plans to leave the district in July.
Seeking top candidate
Of the applicants for the finance opening, officials said one was wholly unqualified and another withdrew. Initial interviews with the remaining seven began last week and conclude Thursday.
Three are currently working in Florida school finance offices: John Simon Jr., financial services manager for the Pasco County schools; Harold Proverbs, supervisor of finance for the Hendry County schools; and Desiree Henegar, assistant budget director for the Sarasota County schools.
But none has served as chief financial officer for a district, Martin said.
"They're all one or more levels below their chief financial officers," she added. "And obviously we prefer (public) school district experience."
Another candidate, Jeff Davis, oversees the finance office for the Levy County schools in his role as assistant superintendent for administrative and support services. But his application shows no specific background in finance.
Larry Hughes served as chief financial officer for the Florida Space Research Institute and other firms near the Kennedy Space Center. But his only public school experience was as member and chairman of the Brevard County School Board.
Neither David Gray of Brooksville, who is a laid-off accountant and partner with First Light Services Group, nor Vidal Olivas of Miami, a finance director at a private K-5 school in Cooper City, lists any sort of U.S. public school experience in their applications.
Officials held out hope that one of the candidates might pass muster, but said they're prepared to revisit the salary question and post the job again if necessary.
"We can repost," Martin said. "I've had conversations with the superintendent and board chair (Dianne Bonfield) specifically about the finance director salary. If we don't find the outstanding candidate that we are looking for, it is definitely going to be a topic for further discussion."
Veteran board member Pat Fagan said the district's standards are high, after years of working with the affable and knowledgeable Bruggink.
"She's the only one I ever dealt with," he said. "It's unbelievable how easy she made it to understand the state school finance formula.
"I consider the finance director to be the No. 2 (position) in the school system, and it's very important that we hire someone with good credentials," Fagan added.
"If we have to take a look at that salary to get someone to come in who's capable, then we need to do so. Without a finance director, we're lost."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.