Saturday, February 24, 2018
Education

Hillsborough school budget passes first test despite teacher and parent concerns

TAMPA — Jodi Pelletier, like a lot of teachers, is eager to return to school, but worried about money for supplies.

"I was told that the amount for my classroom is $50," the 12-year employee, told the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday.

Virginia Goff is worried about her children, who will have to walk to school now that the district is phasing out transportation within two miles of schools.

"It's a recipe for disaster," she told the board.

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District leaders rebutted some of the speakers' concerns. Superintendent Jeff Eakins said teachers will receive supply money, although not all at the beginning of the year.

Then, with little discussion, the board unanimously approved a $2.9 billion budget for 2017-18.

Assuming it passes a second hearing on Sept. 12, homeowners will see their tax rate for schools drop from $6.91 for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value to $6.60. For a home assessed at $200,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption, the new tax is $1,154.

But while the rate goes down, collections are likely to increase because of a rise in property values.

In brief remarks at the start of the heavily scripted budget presentation, Eakins said he and his staff have worked hard over the past two years to try to get spending more orderly and under control.

They've trimmed hundreds of jobs, including nearly 200 teaching jobs, even though enrollment has grown. They've straightened out a haphazard system of paying bills from incorrect accounts and are about a year away from completing that process.

District leaders have held many workshops on the budget ever since they learned in 2015 that their reserve fund was shrinking at an alarming rate. Now they are working to restore public confidence. "It's something I live 24/7," Eakins said.

Still, some parents and teachers wonder if the district can meet the most basic needs of the more than 200,000 students who will arrive on Aug. 10.

"Our buildings are crumbling," said James Stewart, a teacher at King High School who described a cabinet that collapsed in the middle of his class.

Between now and Sept. 12, the district will have a lot more information about how much money it is receiving from the state and how many students will be in both district-run schools and privately run charters.

Because of those variables, the final budget is likely to be significantly different from what they approved Tuesday evening.

In addition to teachers concerned about funds for classroom supplies, the meeting attracted parents who are smarting under cuts to transportation.

The district has taken the position that, like other school systems around the state, it should not transport children who live within two miles of their schools unless specific walking hazards exist. They're cutting so-called "courtesy busing" at middle and high schools this year, a move that affects 7,500 students.

They'll do the same at elementary schools in August 2018.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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