TAMPA — They may have a $100 million grant from the Gates Foundation and protection from tenure-ending bills in the Florida Legislature.
But the Hillsborough County schools may soon feel the pain of funding cuts just like everyone else as the state works to close a massive budget shortfall, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said this week.
"We do not expect the introduction of any proposals to raise significant new revenue," she wrote in a message to employees. "The end result is that budget cuts appear all but certain; it's just a question of how deep they will be."
Under Gov. Rick Scott's budget proposal, Hillsborough is looking at a hole of more than $100 million in its $1.7 billion operating budget. A big chunk of that was filled for two years by the federal stimulus, averting mass layoffs in Tampa Bay area school districts. But the economy and tax revenue aren't even close to their pre-recession levels, and the stimulus money runs out this summer.
Hillsborough officials have tried to put a brave face on that reality, saying they believe legislators will keep their promises to pick up most of the slack. But the Legislature, which used the stimulus to prop up its general fund, may have trouble making up all of the difference.
"Over the last two years, we have known this was coming, and we planned for it," Elia said.
So far, the district has been shielded from bills that would end tenure protections and tie teacher pay to test scores, thanks to an exemption aimed at its similar reforms with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But other budget-cutting plans treat Hillsborough just like any other district.
A Scott proposal for public employees to contribute 5 percent of the cost of their retirement and pension funds "would have the same effect as a pay cut to our employees," Elia said. And officials may end the state's deferred retirement program while grandfathering in current employees.
"If these changes do take place, we anticipate they will not happen until the start of the fiscal year at the earliest," Elia wrote. "It would be unwise to make career decisions based on the possibility of legislative action."
She promised the district, as well as the teachers and employees unions, would look out for students and employees.
"As I talk to people in our school district and around the state, I recognize that there is a great deal of unease about the upcoming legislative session," Elia said. "I share that sense of unease."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.