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Spending cuts in Hillsborough schools warranted, report says

The school district had 3,000 excess employees and transferred $200 million to meet expenses, the report shows.
4.  Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis talks to board members during a Hillsborough County School Board reorganization meeting, Tuesday, November 17, 2020.
4. Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis talks to board members during a Hillsborough County School Board reorganization meeting, Tuesday, November 17, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Dec. 2, 2020
Updated Dec. 2, 2020

TAMPA — For years the Hillsborough County School District has been living beyond its means — to the tune of 3,000 excess jobs, and nearly $200 million in transfers from a capital fund to cover losses.

These are among the findings in a professional report that largely validated the actions Superintendent Addison Davis has taken since he took over the large district in March — actions so unpopular, they inspired public protests and loud derision on the district’s social media.

Parents, teachers and students from area schools came together to protest budget cuts for arts programs, during a multi-school choir performance of Ukuthula prior to the start of a Hillsborough County Public School Board meeting, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 in Tampa.
Parents, teachers and students from area schools came together to protest budget cuts for arts programs, during a multi-school choir performance of Ukuthula prior to the start of a Hillsborough County Public School Board meeting, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

A team from the Council of the Great City Schools, a membership organization of large school districts, says the job cuts were necessary — and that the district should do even more to align spending with resources.

“Past administrations allowed structural imbalances in the district’s general operating fund by failing to adjust spending for losses in revenue and increases in costs, and using one-time monies to cover resulting shortfalls,” the consultants wrote.

They noted that principals in Hillsborough are able to fill jobs that have no funding, and grant-funded projects continue after the grants run out. Duplication runs rampant, they wrote. They were told, “the district had 126 different programs aimed at curtailing bullying.”

Just as Jeff Eakins inherited a budget mess when he became superintendent in 2015, Davis was taken aback at the problems he encountered this summer.

At one point, it appeared the district’s main reserve account had shrunk by $50 million since the previous year. The district made some adjustments and wound up with only a $32 million loss.

But to protect that reserve, the district transferred $40 million from its capital fund into the general fund, which covers ongoing expenses such as payroll. As chief financial officer Gretchen Saunders explained, such transfers are allowable because some of the general fund money supported capital projects. But such transfers, since 2014, have added up to $197 million.

Davis enlisted the council in September to perform the study. Even before the project began, he and deputy superintendent Michael Kemp developed a staffing matrix and, school by school, looked for positions that were not supported by student enrollment and funding, and could therefore be cut.

Michael Kemp is the new Deputy Superintendent of Schools for the Hillsborough County School District.
Michael Kemp is the new Deputy Superintendent of Schools for the Hillsborough County School District. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]

Pushback followed from teacher and parent groups, and from the teachers’ union. The district wound up cutting roughly 800 district and school-based jobs. In more than half of those cases, the jobs were already unfilled. Other affected employees found positions through the district’s hiring pool. This was the first of three phases; more cuts are planned in the first and second semesters of the 2021-22 school year.

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers’ union, said she is not surprised that the Great City Schools report supported Davis’ actions. She said it was “a surface-level look at things and not a deep dive,” clearly based on conversations with Davis and his executive team. Although she believed the report raised some valid points, it also stated, incorrectly, that it is unclear how spending is related to the district’s equity goals. In fact, Eakins’ administration went to great lengths to assign extra resources to those schools that needed them the most, based on risk factors among their students.

Baxter-Jenkins said she believes the staffing matrix used by Davis and Kemp goes too far.

“I’m very worried about staffing, the amount of burnout I’m seeing among teachers, and what they are having to handle,” she said. “I think right now we keep putting more on people, and they’re ready to throw their hands up. You don’t want to over-budget or over-staff, I get that, for money purposes. But understaffing so much brings a whole different set of problems.”

And she said she wished that, in its budgeting process, the district would assume it will give teachers a yearly raise.

The council commended Davis for what it termed a “soft landing” financial recovery plan. The goal is to accomplish as much as possible through natural attrition, transfers of qualified staff, and by eliminating vacant positions.

One problem: The way the district maintains its records, there are sometimes positions that have no funding. The report described one hiring freeze in which district leaders learned that of 1,129 vacant positions, only 424 were funded in the budget.

Left to Right: Pierce Middle School science teachers Joanne Cockrell, and Yenaidy Garcia, protest with other teachers about the Hillsborough County School teacher cuts, Tuesday, October 20, 2020 near the school on North Hesperides Street. Cockrell said she will be directly effected by the cuts and will be reassigned to another school.
Left to Right: Pierce Middle School science teachers Joanne Cockrell, and Yenaidy Garcia, protest with other teachers about the Hillsborough County School teacher cuts, Tuesday, October 20, 2020 near the school on North Hesperides Street. Cockrell said she will be directly effected by the cuts and will be reassigned to another school. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Other times, they wrote, “the budgets for specific positions are created only after the position is filled, and the incumbent is paid by the payroll system.”

The district’s credit has suffered, largely because of losses to the reserve account. Now down to $118.2 million, the reserve represents 3.9 percent of general fund expenditures, which is just slightly above the state minimum of 3 percent and below a 5 percent threshold that the School Board enacted after the 2015 crisis.

The report also noted the volatility of school finances in the current pandemic. In September, the district reported a year-to-year loss of 7,300 students. That loss was adjusted to 5,600 later in the month. “While this is an improvement,” the authors wrote, “it illustrates the elusiveness of predictions in the current environment.”

Other practices came under scrutiny as well. The district pays millions to a substitute staffing service, when it could use some of its overstaffed employees to fill vacancies. There are not enough controls on district purchasing cards. And, the way financial reports are written, it is not easy for the administration or School Board to spot troubling trends.