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Cash-strapped Hillsborough schools get advice from a leader who’s been there

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho said his district once powered through a financial mess, and Hillsborough can do it too.
Miami-Dade Public Schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho addresses members of the Hillsborough County School Board in Tampa on Friday.
Miami-Dade Public Schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho addresses members of the Hillsborough County School Board in Tampa on Friday. [ Hillsborough County School District ]
Published Mar. 12, 2021
Updated Mar. 12, 2021

TAMPA — Bracing for pushback as they enter a round of spending cuts, members of the Hillsborough County School Board got a tutorial from a Florida school leader who has been in their shoes: Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of the Miami-Dade School District.

The high-profile head of the nation’s fourth-largest school system spent an hour walking the board through steps he took to bring his district out of near insolvency and improve instruction at more than 300 schools.

Things were so bleak when he arrived in 2008, he said, the district was in danger of ending its fiscal year in the red. The state was moving to close down nine schools for poor performance, but there was no chance he was going to give up on them, Carvalho said. “Spain had a better chance of reclaiming Florida,” added the Miami superintendent, who was born in Portugal.

To turn the budget around, he renegotiated agreements with labor unions and private sector vendors. He broke ties with the district’s health insurance carrier and began to self-insure.

Job cuts were massive — about 1,000 positions, or roughly half the central administration. The workers were told they could go to a school or “the street,” he said. He vowed to spare school-based educators. But many of those employees, including principals, were given involuntary transfers so he could shore up schools that had been long neglected.

Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis meets with Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho in Tampa on Friday.
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis meets with Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho in Tampa on Friday. [ Hillsborough County School District ]

Changes, although not necessarily as dramatic, are now under way as Hillsborough contends with an operating budget that, left unchecked, could cause the district to run out of cash in mid-June.

Carvalho said he has been following the Hillsborough situation, that he respects and admires Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis.

“I’m not here to teach you anything you don’t already know,” Carvalho said. “You know exactly what needs to be done. It’s not a skill set.”

What matters, he said, “is the courage. The political courage and the fortitude to do what is right.”

In Hillsborough, change has happened in fits and starts.

Davis, now on the job barely a year, scaled back some of the job cuts he had planned in the fall, in the face of outcry from parents, teachers and some School Board members.

More recently, Davis spoke about closing, consolidating or changing attendance boundaries at some schools that are one-third to half empty. Before he could roll out his first proposal, his words drew harsh reaction and his team tried to walk them back.

Carvalho said one important step he took to shield himself from fallout was to assemble business, parent and principal advisory committees. That way, he said, he had cover when he delivered unwelcome news.

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Charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, were also a budgetary concern in Dade, as they are in Hillsborough.

The Miami-Dade district responded by opening its own, district-run charter schools. Under these arrangements, a school can operate outside the typical requirements of public schools. But the governing board hires the district to handle day-to-day operations.

Miami-Dade also became “hyper competitive” against the privately run charter schools, Carvalho said.

Carvalho was helped, in some ways, by the recession because school districts received a windfall in federal stimulus funds.

Hillsborough, similarly, can expect to receive short-term assistance through the federal COVID-19 relief effort.

But Carvalho advised against taking the money without making systemic changes. He said a hiring freeze that he imposed 10 years ago is still in effect today. Don’t kick the can, he said, because “the can gets heavier down the road.”