Thursday, February 22, 2018
Education

Hiring freeze signals more spending cuts in Hillsborough schools

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is now under a hiring freeze as administrators try to figure out how they will cut spending by $107 million in the coming school year.

Some positions, such as bus drivers, are exempt.

But for the most part, district leaders are holding off on hiring from outside.

"We do a freeze to protect our current employees," superintendent Jeff Eakins said Thursday during a School Board workshop on the budget.

"Obviously, when we talk about reducing salary costs, we're talking about the number of employees. We're not talking about reducing people's salaries."

But Eakins made it clear that, relative to other districts, Hillsborough is overstaffed.

Broward County, with about 7,000 more students, has 1,500 fewer employees than Hillsborough's 26,000. Orange County, with almost as many students, has a workforce of 22,700.

And Hillsborough's numbers do not include substitute teachers, who now are hired through employment agency Kelly Services. That practice costs the district $15 million a year.

Now district leaders want to cut their use of substitutes by 20 percent to save $3 million.

Many of the cost-cutting estimates have changed dramatically over the past week, and chief business officer Gretchen Saunders emphasized they are intended just for discussion.

An early proposal to cut payroll by 8 percent to save $85 million was revised downward to 5 percent to save $44 million. That's partly because of revised estimates from Tallahassee, where lawmakers are revisiting education spending in a special session.

But the later document doubled the amount the district would save on materials and supplies, from $6 million to $12 million. Supplies already are a contentious issue at the schools, where accounts have been scrutinized for the past two years.

In preparation for a second, longer budget workshop on June 20, Saunders gave board members worksheets so they could list their priorities.

Board member April Griffin said she will not fill hers out, as she does not want to alarm or offend any one employee group.

While most board members expressed the need for a frank, thorough conversation about priorities, nothing was discussed Thursday in detail. The hope is that on June 20, they will delve more deeply into the issues.

This much is clear: Even with relief from Tallahassee, the district faces a budget deficit.

Hillsborough also is wrestling with close to $1 billion in debt from school construction, nearly $1 billion more in deferred maintenance to air conditioners and other building components, and the prospect of spending more than $1.2 billion to build new schools in the fast-growing outer suburbs. While some existing schools are a third to a half empty, they tend to be in older neighborhoods.

With all those challenges, officials say they will need to cut or eliminate some of their programs and services, and they are trying to assess which ones produce the most benefits.

Board member Lynn Gray suggested cutting back on the many new teacher mentors and coaches.

But Griffin pushed back against that idea, saying the mentors and coaches have kept teacher turnover down.

She suggested that if money is tight, the district should take a close look at its athletic programs, which generally offer the same sports at all middle and high schools. Already, on a pilot basis, the district offers lacrosse at some schools but not others.

Board member Susan Valdes said it's time for an accounting of excess real estate that the district might be able to sell.

Griffin and Chairwoman Cindy Stuart also asked for detailed information about administrators who work outside the schools, and Stuart said that is an area ripe for cuts.

"The superintendent hasn't taken a raise now for three years," she said, "and I think every other person needs to follow that example."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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