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Hillsborough public schools brace for workforce cuts

A new leadership team assembled by superintendent Addison Davis says some schools are living beyond their means.

TAMPA — Job cuts are coming to Hillsborough County Public Schools as a new administration tries to make sense of what they believe to be a lopsided budget.

In the past week, superintendent Addison Davis and Michael Kemp, the deputy superintendent Davis hired from his last post in Clay County, have met with groups of principals, making a case that the nation’s seventh-largest school district must live within its means.

Davis said he has told school leaders, “if we have $100 and we’re going to Publix, we cannot purchase $150 worth of food."

But that, Davis and Kemp say, is essentially what the district has done for years.

Schools launch grant-funded programs. They hire extra personnel. They might not get as many students as they would like. But they keep the positions on their payroll, long after the grants expire.

Michael Kemp is Hillsborough County's deputy superintendent of schools. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

And the district is facing multiple financial pressures. The coronavirus pandemic saddled the system with high costs for technology and cleaning. And charter schools — funded by the state, but operating outside the district system — continue to attract thousands more students each year.

At last count, nearly 15 percent of Hillsborough’s public school students were in charter schools — up from 7.5 percent five years ago. This year’s exodus of students could cost the district $250 million, and it does not include families who moved their children into private and online programs.

Schools, meanwhile, are running with as few as 300 students and some of the same fixed costs as larger schools.

Are some Hillsborough schools overstaffed?

Kemp says they are. He compared Hillsborough to Broward County, a slightly larger district. With 30,000 more non-charter students, Kemp said, Broward has about the same number of jobs for teachers and related employees.

Davis and Kemp say it will take at least a year, and maybe two, to bring spending and hiring in line.

They are taking principals, step by step, through the state funding process. They want enrollment and funding to direct hiring decisions, instead of hiring people and then scrambling for ways to pay them.

Specific jobs on the line include some that are connected to magnet programs. International Baccalaureate programs, for example, have their own assistant principals and guidance counselors.

Schools also have numerous coaches and resource teachers for math, reading and other subjects. Kemp and Davis want to fill those positions more carefully, with a focus on schools that need them most.

“Oftentimes, when schools struggle, there’s this natural strategy to think that the solution they need is more help, and more help equals more people,” Kemp said. “But what I have found, and what Mr. Davis has found, is that the right process does not necessarily need more people to solve the problem.”

This isn’t the first time a new superintendent has tried to shrink payroll in the Hillsborough district, which is the area’s largest job provider with about 24,000 employees.

Jeff Eakins, who took over in 2015, inherited a bureaucracy that was bloated after a $271 million teaching reform experiment backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Reserves were being depleted, to the detriment of the district’s credit rating. Eakins placed his chief of staff, Alberto Vazquez, in charge of cost-cutting measures. He paid a consulting firm $818,000 to look for places to cut.

The consultant confirmed Hillsborough was overstaffed, relative to other Florida school districts. Eakins and Vazquez made some progress in what they called a “rightsizing” before first Vazquez, and then Eakins left the district.

Today, Davis and his team say they are still finding inefficiencies.

Among them: The district spent $15 million on substitute teachers last year, roughly the same as in 2019-20, even though schools were closed for the last quarter. The new plan calls for principals to include the cost of substitutes in their school budgets.

“When we look at the tradition of Hillsborough, this district is very blessed with large budgets and a lot of grants, and sources of revenue,” Kemp said. “But what happens, and this is not unique to Hillsborough, is that those grants have gone away. But they never seem to make the correction."

Davis and Kemp did not say how many jobs they wish to cut. As Eakins did in his day, they pledged to use attrition to avoid layoffs. Already, some teaching vacancies are being held open for that reason. And there are places where schools will gain positions. Elementary schools, in some cases, will get additional assistant principals.

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teacher’s union, said she has heard about the principal meetings and is looking forward to hearing more details about Davis’ plan.

“Right now they’re talking in broad strokes,” she said. As this is the time of year when teachers are transferred to adjust to fluctuations in enrollment, Baxter-Jenkins said she will be interested in seeing how that process is handled.

“I think the numbers right now do indicate that we’ve had some loss of students,” she said. But she believes some — especially those who enrolled in virtual programs — will return to district schools after the pandemic subsides.

Davis and his team are bracing for some backlash as schools and parents see staff members transferred. While they are proposing change at a time that is already stressful for schools and teachers, they say the district’s financial health depends on some austerity.

“It’s going to require a culture shift," Kemp said. “We will have to have courageous conversations about return on investment, and unintended consequences.”

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