TAMPA — The Hillsborough County school system is halfway through a process of getting its spending practices in line, with two more years of job reductions ahead, superintendent Jeff Eakins said Tuesday.
Using attrition instead of layoffs, the district has eliminated more than 1,500 positions including 500 this past spring. Many already were vacant; administrators merely "cleaned up" their books by deleting them.
Plans are in place to phase out 2,000 more, half by March and the other half a year from now. In addition, Eakins wants to beef up marketing, both at the school and district level, to stem the exodus of students to privately managed charter schools. And he wants to offer specialty programs at suburban schools to complement magnets that already exist in urban schools.
"We always have to think very boldly about how we move forward," Eakins told School Board members.
Now beginning his third school year as superintendent, Eakins spoke midway between two state-mandated public hearings on a 2017-18 budget of nearly $3 billion. It was a rushed presentation and discussion, as board members were able to ask their questions previously in one-on-one sessions with Eakins.
Unlike other large districts, Hillsborough is seeking to pay its bills without the help of a voter-approved sales tax. Eakins and board leaders, while not addressing the issue Tuesday, have said in the past that they want to restore confidence in the schools before they ask voters for more money.
But that's easier said than done in a district that has been hit with one controversy after another since the era of open warfare between board members and the prior superintendent, MaryEllen Elia. Most recently, parents and teachers have complained about failing school air conditioners. At Tuesday's meeting, there was also a litany of parent complaints about pedestrian safety, now that the district has cut busing near the schools to save $3.5 million a year.
The nation's eighth-largest school district, Hillsborough boasts award-winning magnet schools and a growing number of students who distinguish themselves in International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and National Merit Scholar competitions.
But it also far exceeds all other Florida districts in the number of schools on a state list based on low elementary reading scores. And, like a lot of urban districts, it is losing many students to privately run charter schools.
Eakins, in addition to cost-cutting measures that will touch on energy use and employee insurance as the size of the workforce decreases, stressed the need to market the district-run schools.
Each principal should think about how he or she can meet the demands of families in the community, he said. Even people who do not have children in the schools should support them.
"Our schools have to become better at how they tell their story and we have to empower them with the tools to do that," he said.
Left unspoken were details about how Eakins will cut $130 million, as he proposed, in salary and benefits over the next two years.
Teachers in Hillsborough, while earning less than many other districts in their early years, have a salary plan that pays them more than surrounding districts after they hit 15 years. The district is in the midst of bargaining with its teachers' union, which has asked for a package that the district estimated to cost $65 million.
Jean Clements, president of the teachers' union, said she was encouraged that Eakins did not mention the pay plan.
However, Eakins did say payroll costs are too high, at 86 percent of the budget, compared to 76 to 80 percent in like-sized districts.
His plan listed four ways to get the size of the workforce in line: clear and consistent staffing methods, voluntary attrition, eliminating positions that do not align with the district's strategic plan, and merging some departments.
In addition to educating more than 200,000 students, the Hillsborough school district is the largest public or private employer in the Tampa Bay area, with more than 25,000 employees. Recognizing that, district leaders place great importance on their reserve fund, which they would use to pay employees in case of a natural disaster.
"Do you see what is happening in Houston, Texas?" Eakins asked to make that point.
A public hearing and board vote on the 2017-18 budget is scheduled on Sept. 12.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.