The Hillsborough County School District is cutting costs for the second straight year in response to a financial crisis, and the results so far are a mixed bag. While the district has put a new spotlight on spending, it also has moved around pieces on the game board rather than seriously confronting the extent of its bureaucracy, its culture of business as usual and the best use of both its academic and physical resources. This is a year to move forward on those broader fronts.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Marlene Sokol presented a sweeping picture of the hard choices facing administrators and the elected School Board that exposed the gap between what the district may want and what it can afford. While the district has economized in places, it also has struggled with some of the very practices that led to this crisis. Now, 19 months after the first alarms were raised about a drop of $200 million in reserves, the district is trying to draw a line between value and luxury. And it's not entirely clear this effort is being driven by the clarity and urgency it needs.
Case in point: Magnet schools. Magnets were designed to foster racially diverse schools by offering unique programs that drew students from outside the immediate neighborhood. But these schools cost a lot of money, and some of them have not been improving diversity or succeeding academically. At East Tampa's Lockhart Elementary Magnet, the student population is 7 percent white and 75 percent black. Only one time in the last six years has it received anything but a D grade from the state, and that was an F. While some may rave about Lockhart and other magnets, Hillsborough's magnets include more than a dozen schools that are under-enrolled, graded C or lower or unbalanced racially. It's time to refocus on successful magnets and eliminate those that are struggling and not worth the return on investment.
The list goes on. Hillsborough's much-hyped teacher excellence program, funded in part by the Gates Foundation, had a mixed record of success in terms of improving teacher quality. But it certainly taxed district finances in ways that are now becoming all too apparent. Officials have yet to fully address a consultant's finding that Hillsborough has too many teachers. A reorganization plan gave eight administrators more authority and higher salaries. There are plenty of mentors for teachers and principals, but some classrooms are filled for too long with substitutes, and many teachers struggle to find money for basic supplies. The nation's eighth-largest school system still has yet to make the tough decisions about focusing on the right priorities.
The district insists it is being sensitive to student impacts when considering any effort to improve the bottom line. But it needs to be aggressive in examining every aspect of spending. There is good reason to end courtesy busing, but how will the district convince angry parents that money can be better used when it is paying for teachers and administrators it might not need or who are in the wrong positions?
Changes to school boundaries and busing have the potential to save money, even though they will be controversial. But this cost-saving exercise is an opportunity to right-size the school district and to ensure that its programs serve students first, not the bureaucracy. Every penny that's poured back into the classroom will build broader public support for the district and make it a more attractive choice.