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Old (expensive) habits die hard, even as Hillsborough strains to cut its schools budget

TAMPA — Theresa Crocker loves the hands-on science and knowledgeable teachers at East Tampa's Lockhart Elementary Magnet School, so much that she sends her son Bryce there each day from their home in Lutz.

"We were impressed from day one," Crocker said. Students can train on a flight simulator, tend a hydroponic garden and meet with mentors from the legal profession.

But Lockhart and other schools like it cost a lot of money, while not always delivering desired results. The student population is 7 percent white and 75 percent black, not the racial balance magnet schools aim to attract. Only once in the last six years has it received anything other than a D grade from the state, and that was an F.

"I personally don't think the school grade means anything," Crocker said.

Multiply her loyalty about a hundred-fold and you understand the dilemma the Hillsborough County School District faces as it tries to cut costs at a time of extreme uncertainty for public schools everywhere.

Hillsborough, in particular, is 19 months into a financial shake-up that began when investment advisors sounded alarms about a $200 million loss in reserves.

But while the district has economized in some areas and upended its accounting practices, it's been slow to retreat from some of the practices that landed it in hot water.

Goals do not die easily when they're about filling schools with quality teachers or giving a poor child a shot at college. Trusted employees are hard to part with. But all of it costs money.

"You have to ask yourself, what do you value, and what will set students up for success?" superintendent Jeff Eakins said recently, looking back on the adjustments he has made so far.

If they seem subtle, it's no accident. "This is tough work," he said. "It's not something that I would have gone in and wished on anybody. But I think we have honored our students and our employees."

• • •

With ambitions befitting one of the nation's largest school districts, Hillsborough conducted itself for years like a superstar in education, experimenting with new ideas that took money to implement. Then the news came crashing down in July of 2015.

Eakins, then taking over for the fired MaryEllen Elia, learned the district was quickly depleting the reserves in its largest pot of state money, the general fund.

Elia's detractors blamed her for the mess. Eakins stressed "financial stewardship." He hired the Gibson Consulting Group, experts in school spending.

Early on, he acknowledged grants are a big part of the problem. While they enhance a district's image, hidden costs remain after the money runs out. Some examples:

Magnet schools. A passion of Elia's, Hillsborough's collection of magnets includes more than a dozen that are under-enrolled, graded C or lower, or unbalanced racially. Some fall into all three categories. Many were launched with federal grants that have long since expired, and now are an added expense for the district.

Lockhart, the East Tampa school, has in the past been awarded two such grants. Today, it has students from 59 school zones. Those who need a bus ride get one for free — a big expense.

But instead of closing unsuccessful magnets, the district's practice has been to change their formats. Rather than pull the plug on Franklin Middle, which faced a possible state shut-down as a law-themed school in 2008, Elia made it an all-boys' school. Then for parity, she created an all-girls' school too.

Although controversial in some circles because of gender stereotyping, Franklin and Ferrell admit students from as far as 25 miles away.

Advanced Academics. It's the name of a district department that helps prepare students for college. It used to get money from EXCELerator, a joint venture between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the College Board. College Board sells many of the products used for this purpose, including SAT and PSAT exams and the SpringBoard math and English texts, which some teachers and students dislike. Although the EXCELerator grant ended years ago, Advanced Academics did not. Nor did $3.4 million a year in district purchases from College Board.

Principal Pipeline. Wanting to be part of the national research on the importance of principals, Hillsborough won a $12.5 million grant in 2011 from the Wallace Foundation. Principal Pipeline would recruit new principals and assist them in their early years. That meant hiring five principal coaches — brand new positions. The number soon grew to eight, at salaries as high as $106,500.

Principal Pipeline was scheduled to end in late 2016. But, at Wallace's request, Hillsborough agreed to make the last year's funding last for another two years' work.

After that, the district will continue to keep five principal coaches on staff.

Empowering Effective Teachers. By far the biggest grant program in both dollars and publicity, EET was first funded in 2009 by the Gates foundation. As with the other grant programs, the idea was a noble one: Use evaluations and training to give all students good teachers, with the goal of erasing racial and economic achievement gaps.

Six year later, in 2015, Gates withheld $20 million of the $100 million that was expected. A pay plan that the district negotiated — which ensured union support — boosted salary costs by $65 million a year. And the district found itself with an expensive bureaucracy of 265 peer evaluators and mentors.

It also paid multiple consultants to analyze teacher ratings and student test data. Eakins, fresh into the budget crisis, had to face reality: The system could not be sustained.

But he didn't ditch it entirely. Believing it was important to support teachers, he kept the mentors and actually increased their ranks. He also created a new "teacher talent developer" job that combined teaching and mentoring.

Federal money now pays the talent developers $3.9 million a year. State money pays the mentors another $8.5 million. And teachers still have the pay plan that gives most of them a $4,000 raise every three years.

Union leaders say the system is fair and affordable.

But it sounds more like an albatross when chief business officer Gretchen Saunders describes her job of balancing the books. "We start off each year $17 million behind," she said.

Money spent on instructional services went up, not down, during the past year of cuts, a recent financial report showed. Some of the $33 million increase came from growth. But the report also shows Hillsborough spent $11 million more than it intended at the beginning of the budget year.

• • •

When the financial imbalance was first revealed, district leaders vowed to go program by program to measure returns on investment. Decisions would be logical and transparent, they said.

More than a year later, the reality is more nuanced.

Eakins followed recommendations from the Gibson group, to varying degrees. The district was said to have 1,031 too many teachers. So, late last year, 140 were taken out of specialist roles to fill classroom vacancies.

But the number of administrators earning six-figure salaries grew between 2015 and 2016.

Eakins moved chief of schools Larry Sykes, who had the second-highest salary in 2015 at $156,704, into a brand new position in community outreach. A year earlier, he upgraded the eight area directors to area superintendents. Their salaries rose, typically by $20,000 each.

Defending that move, Eakins said he had already decided he would expect much more from the area superintendents as he sought to decentralize the massive bureaucracy.

"That was one move I needed to make," he said.

Area superintendents' secretaries also got raises, for a total of $76,000.

Meanwhile, reading teacher Joseph Cool saw his classroom supply allowance drop from $100 to $25. "If we don't buy it, they won't have it," said Cool, whose school, Webb Middle, is 88 percent low-income.

A hiring freeze put substitute teachers in some classes during the fall months. Kimberly Duran, a single mother who teaches special education, saw a change in her own three children's schools. No longer was there discretionary money to pay for a child's five-subject notebook, or a class trip to Busch Gardens.

But for the most part, teachers said the district has been able to shield students from harm. And Eakins says he is proud that, for all the transfers and redeployments, "maybe less than 10 people overall were truly cut."

A common strategy is to find sources other than the imperiled general fund to pay for programs and personnel. District leaders talk about federal Title II and Title I money, which helps schools in low-income communities. Supplemental funds such as these add up to more than $150 million a year, Eakins said, although the rules vary from one to another.

The district last year transferred $68 million of its expenses from the general fund to other accounts. By that method, the reserves are protected — but the spending continues.

And while such tactics might appear to prolong extravagant spending, Eakins said the investment analysts were impressed. "They like that you are aware of your options," he said.

Having spent the last year fine-tuning the budgeting process, Eakins said he looks forward to the next step — taking a critical look at educational programs. That includes the magnet programs, which might be offered at multiple locations so students do not have to travel as far.

• • •

Families who live near their children's schools will face a new issue in August: Middle and high schools will no longer offer busing within two miles unless the walking route is considered hazardous, under state criteria.

The angry response in FishHawk Ranch, an east Hillsborough suburb that was especially hard hit, illustrates another difficulty in managing such a large district: So much money flows through that it's easy to overlook $1 million here and $2 million there.

School Board member Melissa Snively, who represents FishHawk, said the busing cuts, which total about $5 million, were small "in the realm of a $3 billion budget."

For other board members, the last 19 months have been a time of vindication.

April Griffin, one of the members who moved to fire Elia, was roundly criticized even though she was blocked in her attempts to hire an auditor and get solid information about the district's finances.

Referring to the Gates reforms, she said, "There were many conversations that the board had multiple times where we said, 'Is this sustainable?' We were asking those questions. And we were told that they were."

She and others are now determined to tread carefully into grant-funded projects.

Griffin also has pushed Eakins to end the practice of letting principals keep their full salaries when they are demoted.

District leaders were pleased with a recent Fitch Ratings report that raised ratings on some of the debt from negative to stable.

But challenges remain.

Debt payments consume about two-thirds of capital funding — the result of school construction loans during the boom years before the recession.

And no one looks forward to inevitable conversations about boundary adjustments and under-enrolled schools.

"You've seen what's happened in Brevard County," said Saunders, the district business officer. "They closed two schools and it was a fire storm."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampbay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

Old (expensive) habits die hard, even as Hillsborough strains to cut its schools budget 02/20/17 [Last modified: Monday, February 20, 2017 10:28am]
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