Hillsborough County's public school system, the eighth-largest in the nation, faces a serious cash crunch in the coming years as it copes with a bloated payroll, aging buildings and thousands of new students from the fast-growing suburbs. But there is a disturbing gap between the seriousness of the challenges and the district's determination to address them as School Board members plead for political support, private donations and creative ideas from the private sector instead of cutting spending and reallocating resources. The district needs more advocates in the community, but it needs to make some hard decisions first.
The district will hold another budget workshop Tuesday, where officials expect to fine-tune the estimated $107 million target for cuts in the 2017-18 budget. But the broad outlines of a financial crunch have been evident for at least a year, after a series of reports showed Hillsborough faced deep, underlying problems with balancing its budget, keeping its existing facilities in shape and growing to meet the demands of the future.
The district has announced a hiring freeze and floated a range of cuts to reduce payroll and other expenses. But officials are already going soft. One proposal to reduce payroll by 8 percent, which would save $85 million, was cut to 5 percent, which would save only $44 million. Board members seem hesitant to control personnel costs, even though a consultant found Hillsborough had 1,030 more teachers than districts of similar size across the state. Salaries account for about 84 percent of the general budget, compared to 76 percent to 80 percent for districts of similar size. The problem is obvious, and schools superintendent Jeff Eakins has emphasized that savings in personnel would involve job cuts, not cuts to individual salaries.
The proposed cuts seem overly optimistic about how much the district can shave expenses on materials, supplies, contracts and maintenance. Beyond the need to reduce operating costs, Hillsborough is also wrestling with close to $1 billion in debt from school construction, nearly $1 billion more in deferred maintenance to air conditioners and other building components, and the prospect of spending more than $1.2 billion to build new schools in the fast-growing outer suburbs and elsewhere. While some existing schools are a third to a half empty, they tend to be in older neighborhoods. Hillsborough has too many schools where they are not needed and too few where they are. Of the 38 new schools the county anticipates to need in the next 15 years, 31 are expected in south county.
The under-capacity of some urban schools could provide an opportunity to consolidate some campuses, enabling the district to save on maintenance costs and providing a chance to sell surplus property. That would also force a controversial rezoning of school attendance boundaries. But the status quo is not sustainable.
Most board members have offered no substantive solutions for putting the budget on firmer footing over the long term. That discussion should begin Tuesday and include a recommendation for how to address gaps in both the operating and capital funds. And while board members are right to point much of the blame for the funding crunch at the Florida Legislature, board chairwoman Cindy Stuart sent an important message this month, declaring: "We have our own issues that have nothing to do with what the Legislature is doing."
The district has spent nearly two years coming to terms with the budget gap. It's time to quit rehashing the hard choices and to put concrete proposals on the table. That's the first step in building any consensus in the community for new tax revenue.