Monday, June 18, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: School budget talk light on solutions

Tuesday's daylong workshop on the financial crunch facing the Hillsborough County School District was candid, depressing and incomplete. If anything, the meeting raised new questions of why administrators and elected School Board members failed to recognize the runaway spending several years ago that has now raised the specter of layoffs and other impacts to the classroom as a means of balancing what the superintendent, Jeff Eakins, aptly described as a "structurally unbalanced" budget. The staff and board made some progress Tuesday, but they are still light on solutions and heavy on public relations, and they'll need to get more serious in the weeks ahead.

The outlines of the budget gap have been public for years, after the district announced in 2015 it had burned through more than half of its $361 million reserve fund since 2011. Much of that money went to teacher salaries and other recurring expenses, and the district has taken several steps in the last two years to stop the bleeding and to strengthen its credit rating. Still, the breadth of the reckless spending, and the failure of administrators to raise the alarm, is only now becoming clear, as is the reluctance of some board members to acknowledge the hard choices ahead.

Costs for salaries and benefits increased by nearly $200 million between 2012 and last year as the district swelled its ranks, adding hundreds of new staff members to an already plump payroll. The district hired hundreds of new teachers and other staff even as it drained its reserves, failing to change course until after the 2014 school year. And even then, the district saw a reduction in its teaching ranks before the same drop in the number of support staff and administrators.

There is no excuse for this budget emergency, which has led the district to freeze hundreds of vacant positions and to look for every nickel by cutting travel and other routine expenses. The staff is providing more regular budget updates. But this was a failure of management and transparency the district needs to address.

Tuesday's workshop was a comprehensive, public airing of the financial meltdown, but it was woefully short on solutions. Board members proposed using cheaper labor from the private sector for some tasks and saving money by capitalizing on charter schools and Internet courses. In hopes of not overhiring for next school year, the district used the summer break to estimate how many vacancies can go unfilled. But the district will not climb out of this hole by eliminating vacant positions. Eakins made the point early in Tuesday's discussion that Hillsborough needed to address its employment levels. A recent consultant's report found that Hillsborough had 1,030 more teachers than districts of similar size across the state. The portion of its budget going to salaries is far higher than its peer counties. The staff, the board and the teachers' union need to face reality.

Officials say they are sensitive to cutting too heavily out of fear for harming the classroom. That is understandable; Hillsborough is making progress in improving its graduation rate, and cutting too much too quickly could harm academics and speed the shift of more students to charter schools.

But the district has put off the day of reckoning too long. Board members need to offer a road map to financial security — not more platitudes that the district will find a magic bullet. Eakins is right that the county needs new revenue to address its $1 billion backlog in maintenance and the additional $1.2 billion it needs to build 38 new schools in the next 15 years. But he is also right that before the school system seeks new revenue it needs to better manage what it already has.

A new board member, Tamara Shamburger, who was elected last year, hit the nail on the head Tuesday by calling for a more strategic approach to balancing the budget. The debate over cuts should not be about eliminating those pet projects that have the weakest support, but about how the nation's eighth-largest school system can in the most efficient way provide all students with a 21st century education.

Comments
Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

The new grass-roots effort to put a transportation package before Hillsborough County voters in November faces a tough slog. Voters rejected a similar effort in 2010, and another in 2016 by elected officials never made it from the gate. But the lates...
Published: 06/15/18
Editorial: 40 years later, honoring remarkable legacy of Nelson Poynter

Editorial: 40 years later, honoring remarkable legacy of Nelson Poynter

Forty years ago today, Nelson Poynter died. He was the last individual to own this newspaper, and to keep the Times connected to this community, he did something remarkable. He gave it away.In his last years, Mr. Poynter recognized that sooner or lat...
Published: 06/15/18

There was no FBI anti-Trump conspiracy

The Justice Department released Thursday the highly anticipated report on the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe and other sensitive issues in the 2016 election. It is not the report President Donald Trump wanted. But there is enough i...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Voter purge may be legal, but it’s also suppression

The Supreme Court’s ruling last Monday to allow Ohio’s purging of its voter rolls is difficult to dispute legally. While federal law prohibits removing citizens from voter rolls simply because they haven’t voted, Ohio’s purge is slightly different. T...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Editorial: Free rides will serve as a test of whether the streetcar is serious transportation

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to ride for free?This fall, the TECO Streetcar Line eliminates its $2.50-a-ride-fare, providing the best opportunity yet to see whether the system’s vintage streetcar replicas can serve as a legitimate transportation a...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

AT&T and the case for digital innovation

A good way to guarantee you’ll be wrong about something is to predict the future of technology. As in, "One day, we’ll all …" Experts can hazard guesses about artificial intelligence, driverless cars or the death of cable television, but technologica...
Published: 06/14/18
Editorial: State, nonprofits share obligation to help Hillsborough’s foster kids

Editorial: State, nonprofits share obligation to help Hillsborough’s foster kids

The Florida Department of Children and Families has correctly set a quick deadline for Hillsborough County’s main child welfare provider to correct its foster care program. For too long the same story has played out, where troubled teens who need fos...
Published: 06/14/18
Editorial: Educate voters on Amendment 4 and restoring felons’ rights

Editorial: Educate voters on Amendment 4 and restoring felons’ rights

This fall voters will have 13 constitutional amendments to wade through on the ballot, but Amendment 4 should get special focus. It represents a rare opportunity to rectify a grievous provision in the Florida Constitution, which permanently revokes t...
Published: 06/13/18
Updated: 06/14/18
Editorial: How Florida and the Trump administration are tampering with your health care

Editorial: How Florida and the Trump administration are tampering with your health care

The Trump administration just can’t stop sabotaging Americans’ access to health care. Instead of giving up after it failed to persuade Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, it continues to quietly undermine the law in ways that would reduce acc...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Editorial: Parkland students set example for advocacy

Music is healing. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High School put that theory on display Sunday night in New York with their stirring performance at the Tony Awards — beautifully.The students, all from the school’s drama department, bro...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/13/18