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Hillsborough School Board pushes back against planned staff cuts

Morale will worsen, members warn, and the pandemic has already created too much stress.

Hillsborough County superintendent Addison Davis and his team found themselves playing defense Tuesday at a School Board workshop that brought to light the public pushback against planned personnel cuts.

The attacks continued at the board’s regular meeting later in the day, with teachers, parents and students pleading their case to protect arts instruction — something that Davis said was never in jeopardy.

“We have been trying to message that in no way, shape or form, were we ever going to eliminate, reduce or remove any art, music, PE programs or accelerated programs,” Davis said, opening the 4 p.m. meeting and trying to head off a barrage of criticism. “These are the foundation of what we do — and right now, more than ever.”

But by that time, word had spread about specific cuts. Those affected had mobilized on social media and 34 members of the public had signed up to speak.

See Addison Davis' PowerPoint here.

Board members told Davis in the morning session that they do not want to see school morale plummet in the midst of a frightening pandemic. Some questioned the validity of his financial presentation.

“These numbers are realities,” Davis countered after board member Cindy Stuart picked apart his assertion that an operating deficit of $72 million can grow to $128 million, as more than 7,000 students are missing from district rosters.

Steve Cona, the board member most supportive of Davis, insisted the district must be financially prudent and not, for example, transfer money from its capital account to cover negotiated pay raises.

But he was in the minority. Around the dais, there were calls to abandon the goal of getting the district’s financial reserves up to 5 percent of anticipated revenues, which became district policy after a steep drop in reserves in 2015.

Instead, the members said, Davis should aim for the 3 percent threshold that is state law, and spare schools from painful cuts. A modest correction would be better, member Tamara Shamburger said, than “mutilating the morale of our staff.”

Michael Kemp, the deputy superintendent who worked for Davis previously in Clay County, delivered a string of admonitions throughout the morning.

“You can shoot the messenger, but the message remains the same,” he said.

“Tough decisions have to be made. ... We can’t continue to kick the can down the road. This team, it’s not in our DNA not to address the issues.”

The issue, Kemp and Davis contend, is that Hillsborough has too many teachers and not enough student enrollment to support all of them. The Gibson Consulting Group came to the same conclusion in 2016 after being hired to study the district’s finances.

Going school by school, they have asked principals to reconfigure schedules so classes are not under-enrolled. They said Tuesday that the Council of Great City Schools, an organization of large districts of which Hillsborough is a member, is sending a team to do an efficiency audit for free.

“I am happy to know that we are having the financial audit,” board member Stacy Hahn said. “Even happier that we are not paying for that audit.”

But Hahn was the first to push back against cuts. “I have lots of colleagues who are teachers,” Hahn said. “They are suffering right now, they really are.”

Hahn, Shamburger and Lynn Gray said they are concerned about morale as the district continues to lose students. In addition to the missing 7,300 students — of which an estimated 3,000 are being homeschooled because of the pandemic — there are more than 30,000 in privately run charter schools. Those charter school departures could cost the district close to $250 million this year, as money follows the children.

That brings student enrollment down to 215,000 and, excluding the charter students, closer to 185,000.

Yet, according to Kemp, the district spends money as if it taught 225,000 students.

RELATED: Hillsborough public schools brace for workforce cuts

Some board members said the district has not done a good enough job communicating its plan. Stuart suggested the numbers on Davis' slide show are exaggerated. Money lost to charter schools should not have been included in the deficit calculations, she said. “We approved those contracts,” she said.

Several did not like seeing the word “deficit” at all, saying it was too frightening.

“The community has a lot on their plate, and they’ve got a lot of time on their hands to sit around and talk about this,” Stuart said. “Our secretaries are losing their mind on the second floor.”

Board member Karen Perez asked pointed questions of Davis about salaries he is paying his executive team, who are largely from Clay and Duval counties, and how they compare to their predecessors under former superintendent Jeff Eakins.

The two went back and forth. Perez said executive payroll has increased by about $760,000, while Davis said it has not. He said the people he hired are earning what they are worth. And Davis said he saved $7.5 million early on by phasing out many jobs in the district bureaucracy.

Perez also grilled Davis on money spent to renovate the downtown headquarters, which Davis described as “a sickly building.”

And there were references to Achieve 3000, the educational software company that employs Davis' brother, and which now has a $3.6 million annual contract with the district. While Davis and the district’s attorneys said there was no conflict in the deal, critics return to it frequently on social media.

Returning at 4 p.m., Davis and the board heard from more than 30 people who were angry, tearful or both. Some were students reading from their smart phones. Because there were so many, Cona, who was running the meeting, limited them to one minute apiece.

There was a group from Orange Grove Middle Magnet School, where chorus director Jessica Blakley believed her job and program were in jeopardy.

Student Jenesis Montero sobbed through her mask. “Why would anybody want to take away something so beautiful from people like me, their family and friends?” she asked. Later, the group was told the chorus program was safe. But one speaker wanted a written guarantee that Blakley would be allowed to remain.

Teachers union president Rob Kriete told Davis and the board that “clearly the employees in the district are terrified. They are stressed out. And they are working harder than ever before.”

Emily Lee, a teacher at Burney Elementary issued a scathing rebuke, telling Davis that “big box” curriculum products were replacing knowledgeable teachers, the contract was not being honored and the new administration had little credibility because “you paint different, opaque pictures to each group you speak with.”

When it was over, some of the board members promised to take the speakers' remarks into consideration. They tried to end the meeting on a positive note. Cona thanked everyone who came out to speak.

But, he told them, “there are difficult decisions that need to be made. And at this point, doing nothing is not an option.”

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