Hillsborough school district’s hole just got $16 million deeper

School Board members learned Tuesday that, between growth and state mandates, schools will lose money even after receiving an additional $41 million
Hillsborough County School Board, March 20, 2018 [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Hillsborough County School Board, March 20, 2018 [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Published March 20, 2018|Updated March 20, 2018

TAMPA — Break the law? Raise taxes? Or schedule more workshops?

These were some suggestions from the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday after members were confronted with the news that their operational deficit just got $16 million deeper.

This year's Legislative session delivered an additional $41 million for the district, the third largest in the state and the eighth largest in the nation.

But Superintendent Jeff Eakins warned the board that money is "all wrapped up in stuff."

Specifically, the district will have to spend about $10 million more to comply with a new law that requires a security officer or armed marshal be placed in every school. Health care costs are going up. Utility bills are rising. Districts must pay more to the employee retirement program.

And, also baked into that $41 million is the cost of educating a projected 3,000 new students.

Line by line, chief business officer Gretchen Saunders showed the board where spending has stood still or, in some cases, decreased since last year.

Money  for instructional materials went up by $471,307, for a total of $17.5 million, or $81 per student. Digital classroom funding actually dropped by $621,597. For their technological needs, the state is spending $15 per student.

Transportation funding? That's coming in at $32.7 million, which is about half of what the district spends even after it eliminated rides for thousands of middle and high school students.

And even where the state appeared generous, Saunders said, there is not enough money to do what was intended.

Mental health assistance, a new "categorical," as the separate funding streams are called, will pay the district $4.85 million with the goal of hiring psychologists or counselors for all schools.

But Hillsborough has 233 schools. Estimating the salaries conservatively at $55,000, Saunders said, "it gives you 88 people to hire."

The biggest sticker shock is in school security, and in that respect Hillsborough is especially vulnerable.

The district will receive $6.5 million from the state — over and above the $3.4 million it already gets — to pay for the new school officers. The new money cannot be used for anything other than security and it cannot "supplant," or replace current spending.

But to put a guard in every school, district leaders are certain they will have to spend more than that $10 million. If fact, Hillsborough believes it will cost closer to $26 million.

That's because neither Eakins, nor Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister, approve of the state's guardian plan to arm school employees. That leaves two more expensive options: Sworn law enforcement officers from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department, or expanding the ranks of the school district's own armed security force.

Districts are now expected to submit plans to the state, in consultation with their sheriffs.

With districts awaiting instructions from the state, questions remain about how the security plans will be implemented.

Hillsborough, unlike other districts, uses its own armed security officers to help out at the middle and high schools, which use sworn law enforcement officers; and at other district buildings, including its downtown headquarters. The district's officers also provide protection at some elementary schools.

Typically earning between $25,000 and $40,000 a year and specially trained to work in schools, they offer a more economic alternative to sworn officers, whose salaries tend to be higher.

But, even assuming this arrangement meets with state approval, it is impossible to say how fast the district can recruit, hire and train enough officers to meet the need.

Board member April Griffin, recalling debates five years ago when Superintendent MaryEllen Elia wanted guards in every school after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, wanted to go rogue.

"I don't want to just go after money for the sake of going after money, knowing it's going to cost us more money," Griffin said. "The officers are not available in the area, number one. I'm just curious. What if we choose not to go down some of these paths that have been set forth? Do we pay fines? Do we not get funding from the state?"

She used the example of the state's onerous Constitutional amendment on class size.

"There have been districts that have paid penalties as opposed to abiding by class size amendment because it was cheaper to do that," Griffin said. "I know this is an awkward, weird conversation to have. But I think that we need to explore all possibilities in that regard."

Eakins and attorney Jim Porter were not in favor of the district knowingly breaking the law.

Lynn Gray said that, like other districts around the state, Hillsborough has to think in terms of a tax referendum to support the schools.

"We are all in this for children," Gray said. "The air is taken out of the balloon and we are running out, more and more. The board needs to consider, along with the superintendent, ways to gain money."

Gray also said the board should work to stem the growth of the charter school sector, which captures more than $100 million a year in education funding in Hillsborough: "We're drowning."

Griffin also suggested that Eakins is not moving quickly or forcefully enough to get spending under control, and to "live within our means."

The hour-long meeting did not provide enough time for Eakins to go into details about spending decisions he has made, or will now make, to adjust to tight state funding. It had been scheduled for 30 minutes, strictly to discuss the position the board would take on the budget as Gov. Rick Scott contemplated approving it.

But Scott signed the budget into law before the board could meet.

Member Cindy Stuart, who has complained that the district moved too slowly to adjust to mandates in last year's education bill, said she looks forward to discussing this year's school security bill and education budget in two upcoming workshops.

Melissa Erickson, an education advocate who runs the Alliance for Public Schools, said she would like to see more dialogue about the district's troubled finances, and how to repair them. And that discussion, she said, should include serious consideration of a tax referendum campaign.

"I'm disappointed in a lack of substantive discussion about the crisis that we are currently facing for public schools." Erickson said.

"I have never had the amount of energy in this community that wants to save their public schools that is happening right now. And it is disheartening to me that our elected officials are either actively working against that energy, by passing legislation that is harmful to public schools, or not tapping into that energy if they are supporters of public schools."