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.