Wednesday, April 25, 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]

Comments
Hillsborough says its teachers are well-paid; the teachers say it’s not true. Who’s right?

Hillsborough says its teachers are well-paid; the teachers say it’s not true. Who’s right?

TAMPA — Seeking to show that Hillsborough County school officials waste money that could go to teacher raises, union director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins talked about highly paid administrators. She talked about legal fees paid to outside firms when in-...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Sheriff: Sunlake SRO who took down student ‘did what he had to do’

Sheriff: Sunlake SRO who took down student ‘did what he had to do’

At a news conference on Wednesday, Nocco identified the officer as Richard Stackon, who joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1994. Stackon has spent "several years" as an SRO, Nocco said, and he had nothing in his file "that stands out." Around 1 p.m., Noc...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Converting Ridgewood High generates excitement, dismay

Converting Ridgewood High generates excitement, dismay

NEW PORT RICHEY — Chris Dunning is a bundle of energy as he greets families to Wendell Krinn Technical High School’s first open house.He talks rapid fire about the opportunities to earn college credits and gain career training while also completing a...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Hernando schools superintendent ‘pink-slipped’ by public following firing of 47 teachers at Moton Elementary

Hernando schools superintendent ‘pink-slipped’ by public following firing of 47 teachers at Moton Elementary

BROOKSVILLE –– A room full of people wearing purple erupted in frustration before Hernando County school officials Tuesday night, scolding Superintendent Lori Romano for her recent firing of 47 teachers at Moton Elementary, which has been struggling ...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Hernando school officials deny Chehuntamo charter school on second try

Hernando school officials deny Chehuntamo charter school on second try

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School Board on Tuesday denied the 2019 opening of Chehuntamo Advanced Performance High School, a charter school proposed by the same group that applied once before in 2017.The team behind the school, said to be for ...
Updated: 12 hours ago
Hernando School Board okays second district-wide survey to evaluate superintendent

Hernando School Board okays second district-wide survey to evaluate superintendent

BROOKSVILLE — A second district-wide survey to evaluate the performance of Superintendent Lori Romano soon will go out to about 3,000 Hernando County School District employees, giving them a chance to weigh in on the job she is doing.The instrument, ...
Published: 04/25/18
Hillsborough’s Eakins gets high praise for finances, mixed reviews on other issues in his annual School Board evaluations

Hillsborough’s Eakins gets high praise for finances, mixed reviews on other issues in his annual School Board evaluations

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins is proud of his record in boosting high school graduation rates and inroads he has made in marketing the nation’s eight largest school district.His seven bosses on the School Board...
Published: 04/25/18
Sarasota student, family apologize for racist ‘promposal’

Sarasota student, family apologize for racist ‘promposal’

The family of the 18-year-old Sarasota high school student under fire for the racist prom proposal he sent out on social media this weekend has publicly apologized for their son’s actions. They also said that as a result of his actions, he wil...
Published: 04/24/18
Updated: 04/25/18
SRO being investigated in Pasco County for arrest of student

SRO being investigated in Pasco County for arrest of student

LAND O’LAKES — A school resource officer at Sunlake High School is under investigation after he tried to take a female student into custody on Tuesday, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.School officials asked the SRO remove the student f...
Published: 04/24/18

Battle continues over west Pasco school rezoning

Jim Stanley does not give up without a fight.The west Pasco County parent who brought down the school district’s 2017 attendance zone revisions, leading the administration to change its procedures along the way, has filed a new challenge to the syst...
Published: 04/24/18