TAMPA — A plan by Hillsborough County school officials to cut $57 million in payroll costs ran into strong opposition Tuesday evening as teachers, parents and students showed up to complain to the School Board.
A group of students from Walker Middle School turned out to advocate for a history teacher, a math teacher and a music teacher. Superintendent Addison Davis told them the music teacher will be allowed to stay, thanked them for their advocacy, and promised “first-round draft picks teachers" in all of their classrooms.
Other situations were less encouraging.
Shelly Valdez, an art teacher at Lithia Springs Elementary, told the board she is quitting, rather than agreeing to split her time between two schools, as the district has requested.
Anna Rice, who teaches music at Chiaramonte Elementary, spoke on behalf of others who organized music programs, and are being reassigned to other schools. “Cutting positions in the middle of the school year in a pandemic is a deplorable act,” she said.
Davis and his administrative team knew there would be backlash when they began linking job assignments to student enrollment levels. They are trying to cure an operating deficit that is eating into the district’s reserve account for the second time in five years.
State law requires that districts hold back at least 3 percent of anticipated yearly revenue. District policy, enacted in 2016 after a steep loss to the reserves, sets a 5 percent minimum. The board is discussing the possibility of dropping that minimum back to 3 percent.
Teachers affected by the ongoing adjustments are seeking jobs in the district’s hiring pool. Many are being allowed to remain at their schools until they find a suitable match, and more than half of the nearly 800 cuts are in unfilled vacancies.
In a related development Tuesday, the district announced it has reached a deal with the teachers union that will raise 4,478 teachers to a salary of $46,900 in accordance with a new state law setting base pay. Previously, Hillsborough teachers started at $40,000.
The district alluded to the job cuts in its announcement, describing a multiyear effort to become more efficient. “The staffing adjustments are intended to be a first step so that we can continuously protect, as much as possible, the employees in the district,” the announcement said.
The district did find more than $5 million to give veteran teachers a pay bump, plus a onetime bonus to those at the top of the pay scale. That money is separate from the funds the state is providing for the $46,900 minimum salaries.
Davis reminded the board that the district reported a $72 million operating loss last year. “That is a major hole to be able to overcome,” he said.
Cost-cutting measures, moving forward, include a freeze on credit card purchases, and an overall hiring freeze with the exception of high-demand jobs such as bus drivers and special education teachers.
Chairwoman Melissa Snively said she found some of the parent and teacher speakers overly harsh in their assessment of Davis who, having arrived during the pandemic, has had little opportunity to get to know constituents.
At the same time, Snively questioned whether Davis could have found a way to give parents advance notice that their children’s teachers might be removed, rather than having them hear about the moves from the grapevine or on social media.
Malerie Dorman found out Tuesday that her daughter’s kindergarten class of 17 at Bailey Elementary will be split up, with the teacher reassigned.
“I can’t even put my head around it,” Dorman told the Tampa Bay Times. “I’m sure she learned each student’s quirks and the students learned the teacher’s habits. And it’s more troubling in a pandemic to take 17 kids and give them to other teachers."
Davis said the district is sending out a letter and a video that explains the situation and the process. Snively said that might have happened sooner.