More money, more commitments in the Hillsborough County schools

School district leaders get a first look at what the Legislature will provide, and expect.
[Associated Press | 2016]
[Associated Press | 2016]
Published May 7, 2019

TAMPA - The Tampa Bay area’s largest school district will get $66 million more from the state than last year - but about half of it is spoken for, Superintendent Jeff Eakins told the School Board Tuesday morning.

And the rest will likely be eaten up by the rising costs of utilities, employee pensions and other mounting expenses - not to mention the cost of serving an estimated 1,500 additional students who will report to school in August.

Board members reviewed the early estimates following a spirited discussion about charter schools and how they should respond as state leaders continue to favor alternatives to traditional, government-run schools.

“We have to look at the big picture,” said board member Stacy Hahn, who suggested looking for ways to work in partnership with the publicly funded, yet privately managed schools. “At this point, we are not going backwards. We don’t have the power to do that. So we need to look at the hand we’ve been dealt and how do we make that a winning hand for our students.”

The morning workshop happened hours before the board was to vote on a “schools of hope” proposal by IDEA, a Texas organization that wants to build four schools in the neighborhoods served by Robles and Oak Park elementary schools. The school of hope concept, coined by now-Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, aims to attract accomplished charter operators to offer alternatives in communities where schools get poor results.

The issues of charter schools and the budget, while separate, are not unrelated.

The district is bracing for the loss of thousands of students not just to charters, but also to private schools under an expanded state voucher program. Other parents are opting for virtual school and homeschooling.

As the population is growing, Hillsborough has not seen a net loss in enrollment. But its 52 charter schools have absorbed virtually all of the growth, which takes money out of the total $3 billion budget.

Lynn Gray, who has taken the strongest position among the seven board members against for-profit charters, grilled a representative of the state Department of Education on minority enrollment, financial reporting and whether charters must meet the same standards as traditional schools.

Others on the board pointed out that many of the district-run schools are getting disappointing results - and it is hard to blame parents for looking for alternatives. Chairwoman Tamara Shamburger suggested exploring the concept of district-run charters, something already exists in Miami-Dade, and represents a hybrid or partnership between the district and an outside provider.

Other news:

* The state created a new funding category for schools in what it calls “turnaround” mode. Some of the new money coming into Hillsborough - $9.77 million - will be for that purpose, and it will be spent largely to assist the 50 Achievement Schools.

* Eakins’ plan to hire more teachers for the Achievement schools seems to be getting good results, although just how good is not entirely clear. At the top of the workshop, Eakins said the number of active applicants is 34 percent higher than it was this time last year. Recruitment began earlier than usual for the Achievements schools, which so far have received 212 transfers and 39 new hires. However, some of the 212 teachers came from other Achievement schools, so it is impossible to calculate the net gain.

At last count, Hillsborough had 880 instructional vacancies posted for the coming year.