TAMPA — U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is among those hitting back against proposed job cuts by the Hillsborough County School District.
Castor, a Democrat who represents Tampa and the northwest Hillsborough suburbs, sent superintendent an Addison Davis a letter this week, imploring him to advocate for more federal aid to recover from the pandemic, instead of shrinking the district workforce.
“It would be a travesty,” she wrote, “to eliminate positions or lose momentum in the education of all of our students during these very challenging times.”
Castor’s letter came on the heels of an emotionally charged day of School Board meetings Tuesday, in which students, teachers and some board members pushed back against planned spending cuts.
Davis and his deputy superintendent, Michael Kemp, contend that the district has more instructional employees than it can afford, given state funding levels and shrinking enrollment. More than 7,000 students are missing from the rosters since the schools reopened, some because of safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. Another 30,000 have migrated over the years to independently managed charter schools, and their state funding leaves with them.
Davis and Kemp have not released any hard targets, and they expect the process to take as long as two years. But principals were assigned in recent weeks to propose cuts in their schools. As they worked through their preliminary plans, word leaked out and sparked a backlash among teachers and parents.
Castor wants to enlist Davis’ help in passage of the $915 billion Heroes Act. Heroes, an acronym that stands for Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, would provide additional one-time stimulus payments to Americans in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It would also provide “more than $100 billion in direct emergency funding for students, schools and institutions to maintain access to education,” according to Castor’s letter.
Passed by the House of Representatives, the act has yet to clear the Senate in a stalemate that has lasted several months.
“I hope you will weigh in with our senators and relay the importance of the emergency aid to our public schools, students and teachers,” she wrote to Davis.
There was no immediate response from the superintendent.
He and his team have argued that Hillsborough’s spending problems go far beyond the expenses of COVID-19, which are, in a large part subject to federal reimbursement.
For years, they say, the district has scrambled to cover operating expenses with money that should be in the reserves, or protected for capital needs. More than $40 million has been transferred in recent years from the capital budget, using practices that are legal, but not considered fiscally prudent, they say.
During a workshop Tuesday, several School Board members argued for lowering the district’s minimum for its main reserve account to 3 percent of anticipated revenues, as required by state law. After a financial crisis in 2015, the board raised its minimum to 5 percent. Bond rating firms, which determine the district’s credit rating, have pushed for levels that are even higher.
An efficiency study is under way by Council for Great City Schools, an organization of large urban districts of which Hillsborough is a member. That study follows an earlier one by the Gibson Consulting Group, which found numerous examples of inefficiency and over-staffing in the district.