Sunday, January 21, 2018
Education

Hillsborough school budget by the book, but difficult to find

TAMPA — The Pasco County public schools budget lists, school by school, what is spent on teachers, guidance counselors, training and materials. It's 478 pages and all of it is online.

The Pinellas County School District budget compares property taxes under various rates and provides the teacher payrolls at 141 schools. It's 200 pages and all of it is online.

The Hillsborough County School District's budget? It exists, but not in book form, not even online. The board each year is presented with 23 worksheets, required by the state, to approve nearly $3 billion in spending.

Some board members have started pressing for more information.

"I have never liked our public hearing process," said board chairwoman Candy Olson. "I have asked for more detail."

So has member Susan Valdes, who said she was frustrated when she tried to compare per-student funding levels from school to school.

"If I'm responsible for this budget, I would really like to know how those dollars are being utilized and how they are spread among all of our schools," she told the board early this year. "I want to see it all."

School district officials, who are preparing for the first of two budget hearings later this month, take pride in fiscal planning that got them through the recession without teacher layoffs or furloughs. And budget officials in other school districts hold Hillsborough in high regard.

"Their finance staff is good," said Kevin Smith, assistant superintendent of budget and resource allocation for Pinellas County. He commended Gretchen Saunders, Hillsborough's chief business officer. "Gretchen does a very good job," he said.

But on the School Board, there are sometimes questions about the process.

Stacy White was troubled recently by a district-by-district comparison that suggested Hillsborough spent disproportionately on administration. Saunders, after studying the issue, explained that the other districts only looked more efficient, due to different accounting practices.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the board there are numerous places where the public can get school-specific information, including financial reports that are available at the schools at the end of each year.

There is, to be sure, a wealth of information if you know where to look.

A 162-page Comprehensive Annual Financial Report gives great detail about district finances, though it's more about bond repayment schedules than what Grady Elementary School spent on crayons.

On the Web there is Transparency Florida, which savvy taxpayers can use to isolate expenditures and compare schools. The business section of the Hillsborough district links to the Transparency site.

And Saunders said she is always willing to answer questions and provide information about the district's finances.

But people seldom ask.

"If we get a question a year from a parent on a PTA, I'd be shocked," said Saunders, who can generally satisfy any curiosity with a PowerPoint presentation.

"Maybe it's just that at this point, we aren't laying people off. There's no emergency crisis. There's no 'how are we going to make payroll this week.' There's none of that level of heightened insecurity."

By contrast, Pasco cut 513 positions last year and 88 the year before. "And we're in our fourth year of employees not getting raises," said spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli.

The district provided school-level information during town hall meetings in the last few years, she said. Input received at those hearings stopped the district from eliminating programs, Romagnoli said.

Across the country school districts are under pressure to be more transparent and less centralized, said Michael Griffith, senior school finance analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

In Houston and San Diego's school districts, there have been moves toward school-based budgeting, with some hurdles along the way.

"Some principals have not been trained for budgeting," Griffith said. "Some principals say, 'I like this power, but I just don't have the time.' ''

In small towns in Vermont, where the average school district serves only several hundred students, parents turn out for yearly budget hearings and discuss whether more money should be spent on after-school programs, or special education, or athletics. "It's a lively debate," he said.

"Unfortunately, for larger school districts like the ones in Florida, you get to a point where they are so large that people feel disconnected."

Multiple funding sources and accounting requirements can make it hard for even a seasoned school board member to get a clear picture of where the money is going, he said.

"These things are daunting. I have two master's degrees and I've been in the field for 20 years. This is what I do for a living and I can't figure it out."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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