Thursday, December 14, 2017

Report: Hillsborough schools could save nearly $50 million a year with changes

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is neglecting its buildings, wasting money by failing to use modern technology for payroll and purchasing, and making inefficient use of its school buses, according to a new report on the district's finances.

The report says things are so bad in the facilities department that most school buildings are in poor shape and the district will need to spend more than $100 million a year just to keep them from getting worse.

The 229-page document that School Board members will review at a workshop Tuesday morning lists dozens of recommendations, from changing out light bulbs to save $1.5 million in energy costs to re-adjusting start times so every bus can serve three schools.

Taken together, the changes could save the district about $47 million a year in its general fund, by far the largest part of its $2.8 billion budget.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hot schools and crushing debt spell daunting decisions in the Hillsborough schools

RELATED: Clerical jobs to go first as Hillsborough school officials look for more budget cuts

Gibson Consulting Group is being paid $818,000 for this project, and the report released over the weekend marks the second of three phases. The "deep dive," as Superintendent Jeff Eakins has called it, was launched after bond rating firms sounded alarms about the district's shrinking reserve account.

The first report, released in June, called for a gradual reduction of 1,700 jobs. Already, dozens of clerical workers have seen their central office jobs eliminated. The district is placing as many of the workers as it can at schools, but there have been some cuts at those locations too.

A specialist in public school finances, Gibson noted several times in its latest report that the challenges in Hillsborough — especially with unfunded maintenance costs — are mirrored in large districts around the nation.

Gibson commended the School Board on its new five-year strategic plan and praised a teacher recruitment process that filled more than 1,300 jobs this year.

While critics say the district is top-heavy with high-paid administrators, Gibson found the $5.7 million spent on general administration is relatively low.

The report also noted Hillsborough's seven-year partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which resulted in a costly teacher evaluation system. While the initial goal was to pay teachers for performance, a new pay plan rewarded both performance and seniority. Salary costs skyrocketed, and hundreds of new jobs were created for the teacher evaluators. That position no longer exists.

Gibson acknowledged that Hillsborough already has begun to cut costs. But despite the austerity measures, the district has more employees per student than other districts used for comparison.

Suggestions in the report cover employee health insurance and transportation, office automation and whether bus drivers should be allowed to park their buses at home.

Among them:

• The district could save $10 million a year in insurance costs, in part by taking better advantage of a wellness program and ending the practice of giving money to workers who do not use the insurance.

• Vendor bids should be submitted online and not through paper mail, which wastes time. Similarly, the district is creating more work — and increasing the likelihood of errors — by using paper time sheets for employees.

• In transportation, millions could be saved by reducing absenteeism, keeping track of drivers' hours, phasing out busing for students who live within two miles of a school, and ending the option some drivers have of parking their buses at home.

The ongoing purchase of new buses means there is less need for spares. And $2.4 million a year could be saved if bell times were adjusted so each driver had three routes.

Gibson said the district appears to have a sound plan to address projected population growth.

But again, as in other districts, Hillsborough has serious problems with the way it maintains its buildings. "Deferred maintenance is a huge problem," Gibson wrote.

The average school building in Hillsborough is about 49 years old. Half are more than 50 years old. The newer ones are typically about 20 years old, with a planned life span of 20 to 25 years.

A $794 million backlog in deferred maintenance and capital projects breaks down to $4,145 per student — lower, it turns out, than the national average of $4,883.

Using an industry ranking, the consultant found that Hillsborough school buildings, on average, are in poor condition, and most are fair to poor.

Just maintaining current conditions would cost $111 million a year. And, when Gibson compared recommended spending levels to the amounts in this year's capital plan, the plan fell short by nearly $82 million.

Nor did the plan itself pass muster. "The current process of conducting facility condition assessments on a five-year cycle is fragmented and not well documented," Gibson wrote, suggesting the district create a separate facility management plan.

The maintenance department, described at a recent School Board meeting as woefully understaffed, cannot handle its workload. In interviews, school leaders described delays that included "a year and a half to get light bulbs replaced."

To address some of these problems, the consultant recommended hiring more maintenance supervisors.

Gibson also wants the district to hire specific blue-collar workers instead of the current classification of multi-trade workers, who might be asked to work on carpentry, plumbing, water lines, electrical wiring, drywall, roofing and myriad other tasks.

"Given such a wide variety of maintenance duties, workers are more susceptible to being assigned to tasks for which they are not fully qualified," the report said.

"They may not have the knowledge and experience to recognize and mitigate safety hazards, which can result in severe injuries to themselves or anyone in their work area."

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

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