The new Hillsborough County School Board might shake things up, based on statements members made Tuesday at the start of a two-day retreat.
For starters: Steve Cona, who was elected to finish Susan Valdes’ term in west Hillsborough, wants the district to rethink the locations of its International Baccalaureate high schools.
Cona lives in the Westchase area, where families have complained loudly about transportation to Robinson High School, which has the I.B. program for their community.
To get to Robinson, which is located near MacDill Air Force Base, students must travel past three other high schools: Alonso, Jefferson and Plant.
“Robinson is too far south,” Cona said. He suggested Alonso.
Cona said he also would like to see more attention paid to Chamberlain High School, which loses many high-performing students to the Hillsborough High School I.B. program. He wants stronger relationships between school technology programs, known as “STEM,” and workforce education.
And Cona is concerned about “big-ticket cost savings items.”
Among his ideas: Outsource services such as janitorial and maintenance work, use self-insurance for employee health plans, and consider whether the district needs to keep its downtown headquarters, given that building’s potential value.
Members Cindy Stuart and Karen Perez, who also is new to the board, emphasized mental health services, with Stuart agreeing that Chamberlain needs support.
Others restated goals they have articulated in the past: Literacy, for new member Stacy Hahn; equity and urban schools, for chairwoman Tamara Shamburger; and disruptive student behavior for Hahn and Melissa Snively.
Lynn Gray said she is concerned about the district’s reserve levels, despite work in recent years to balance the operating budget.
“We’are still spending money that, fiduciarily, we shouldn’t be,” she said.
There was discussion, in the wake of a tax referendum victory at the polls, about the district’s facilities and operations divisions.
Cona and Gray agreed that too much responsibility is falling to Chris Farkas, the facilities chief who was promoted last year to deputy superintendent.
“There’s a lot of work on one person’s shoulders,” Cona said. “He’s doing a good job, but things can fall through the cracks.” Others said there is not adequate leadership in safety and risk management.
“Superintendent,” Gray told Superintendent Jeff Eakins later in the day, “what I am very concerned with is the leadership you have around you. “
Gray disagreed with some of the others about whether the board could do more to provide oversight over the growing charter school sector.
Gray also called, more than once during the course of the day, for board members and top-level staff to stay off their cell phones during board meetings. Too often, she said, employees, parents and others who speak at the meetings feel they are being ignored or disrespected.
“People look at us as leaders, as role models,” she said. “How dare we not be professional when we have this role?”
Gray referred to an especially embarrassing time in the board’s history, when someone photographed her Facebook messages and some of Snively’s, and then made them public.
Shamburger pointed out that the board’s way of work – a document that guides them, but is not legally binding – already says members should keep their cell phone use to a minimum during board meetings.
Later in the day, Snively said she was concerned about the 50 Achievement schools that were targeted for improvement; and other initiatives that were compromised in the time the district spent trying to correct years of over-spending.
“The bottom fell out… and the whole focus shifted to finances,” she said. “There’s a lack of trust, there’s resentment, there’s confusion.”
Eakins acknowledged it has been a challenging time as finances took precedence over other compelling needs.
Addressing the teacher shortage, which is contributing to more than 100 advertised vacancies in the Achievement schools, he told the board members they can expect dramatic changes in human resources.
The board is working with Chicago-based Alma Advisory Group to improve its hiring practices, and Eakins said he will present a plan to the board within months.
“We are literally flipping everything on its side so we can get the very best talent in these schools,” he said.