Hillsborough County school leaders are moving ahead with a plan to shrink the district’s workforce by more than 1,000 positions in the coming year to save close to $80 million.
It could have been worse, they told the School Board, which met in a budget workshop Thursday. Earlier estimates placed the number at closer to 1,600, but principals had a chance over the past six weeks to petition for “critical” jobs to be restored, and the district found other ways to cut costs. Among the savings: $10 million this year in materials and supplies.
Despite the adjustments, board members are answering to principals, teachers and parents who fear children will miss out at a time when some are suffering losses related to the pandemic. Others, they say, will seek out educational alternatives like charter schools, which would further erode district funding and feed what member Jessica Vaughn described as “a cycle of loss.”
Board members Karen Perez, Stacy Hahn and Nadia Combs said they would have wanted to see detailed information, in the more than 140 pages of back-up materials provided, about cuts to the district’s central offices.
“I don’t want to improve our financial picture on the backs of our schools solely,” Hahn said. “Everyone’s got to walk the walk, not just the schools.”
Superintendent Addison Davis, who has taken criticism for recruiting an executive team from outside the district when he arrived a year ago, told the board that his cabinet is smaller and more diverse than his predecessor’s. He said he has made about $1 million in central office cuts, and will look to cut another $5 million for the coming year.
Davis said district-level cuts have not been planned out fully yet, partly because he is working against a deadline to inform school employees by April 9 what their status will be for 2021-22.
“It openly pains me to have to cut anybody at the school level,” Davis said.
Teachers union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, speaking after the meeting, said that she, too, would like to see details about district office employment. “They are sticking to a narrative that they are saving money,” she said. But she is skeptical that the narrative is true.
As with prior cuts, the hope is that most affected employees will be able to transfer into other district jobs, if they do not retire or resign. In a typical year, the teaching workforce turns over by at least 1,000 positions.
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Nothing was said about a feared state takeover, an idea that was floated early in the year when the budget cuts were first announced. State law requires the district to maintain a reserve fund equal to at least 3 percent of anticipated annual revenues. District policy, enacted after a financial crisis in 2015, requires 5 percent.
At the moment, the reserve is on schedule to dip below zero on June 16, and such an event could trigger state action. Corrective actions, as the district calls them, are expected to raise the level above 3 percent in a way that can be sustained in future years.
One of several wild cards is the issue of federal COVID-19 bailout funds. The district anticipates hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid, which would appear sufficient to fill its budget gaps. There is considerable latitude in how it can be spent: In addition to air filters and sanitation equipment, the federal dollars can pay for computer upgrades, curriculum materials and tutors to help students make up for instruction they lost when schools were closed.
But Michael Kemp, the deputy superintendent and acting chief financial officer, said the Legislature is likely to decrease state funding for items such as transportation, special education and supplemental tutoring. What’s more, he reminded the board, state leaders are urging districts to use the federal COVID-19 relief funds for just that: one-time expenditures related to the pandemic, and not to pad spending for ongoing operations.
Among the board members, there were the usual remarks about the state’s failure to fund education adequately in the decade and a half since the 2007 recession. “We have to think about engaging in other sources of money,” said chairwoman Lynn Gray, who three years ago pushed for the sales tax referendum that is now funding air conditioning upgrades in the schools.
“When you cut programs, which I know you have to, you’re cutting people,” Gray said. “And you cut the identity of a school greatly.”
There was a plea, from board member Henry “Shake” Washington to remember the discipline and security needs at schools that serve neighborhoods high in poverty and crime. “That’s where equity comes into play,” he said.
And there was an explanation by longtime member Melissa Snively, intended to clear up the impression that prior boards did nothing to correct spending deficits. Snively said that between 2015 and 2019, the district shrank its workforce by 7 percent.
But, she and others acknowledged, the cuts were not sufficient to make up for the dual impact of competition from independently run charter schools — which now serve nearly 15 percent of Hillsborough’s public school children — and shortfalls in state funding.
Kemp has been warning the board since he and Davis arrived that the district must adhere to staffing formulas based on state per-pupil funding, and end a yearly practice of transferring money from capital accounts to make the operating budget appear balanced.
Payroll costs have grown from $845 million between July and February of 2018-19 school year to $961 million for the same period this year, according to the materials that were shared.
Population has grown since 2018. But the shift to charter schools causes the district to lose out on $250 million a year of state funding. Tens of millions more are paying for a growing number of state-funded private school scholarship programs, a situation that is likely to intensify after this legislative session.
Despite these challenges, Baxter-Jenkins said the federal bailout money will be substantial.
And if cuts are needed, she said, “they need to be as far away and far removed from the classroom as possible.” Not only will the cuts disrupt schools, she said, but they will also cause parents to lose confidence in the system. “Kids and parents know their teachers. They know a person in a school,” she said. “They don’t know somebody who works downtown.”