For Hillsborough voters, a question: How good has the school district been with your money?

Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins, seen here talking with teachers in 2016, says he takes pride in having cut teaching and administrative positions over the last three years. "We are literally at the employee level we were back in 2008, and we have almost 30,000 more kids," he says. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins, seen here talking with teachers in 2016, says he takes pride in having cut teaching and administrative positions over the last three years. "We are literally at the employee level we were back in 2008, and we have almost 30,000 more kids," he says. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Sept. 15, 2018

TAMPA — At a Ballast Point church this Tuesday, Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins will do something he held off doing for three years. He will ask the public to trust him with more of their money.

A speaking tour, timed to a Nov. 6 sales tax referendum, has Eakins carrying a message about meager state funding and how he wrestled a runaway, $3 billion budget into shape.

"I'm bringing to the board a budget that is completely balanced and we grew our reserves for the first time since 2010-11," he said in an interview this week, shortly before the School Board adopted this year's spending plan.

The ballot item will ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax that would raise $1.3 billion over 10 years for capital expenses, mostly to repair or replace failing air conditioning systems.

But beyond the dollars and cents, Eakins knows voters also will weigh what they think about him and his team. Does he have the credibility to get the votes?

• • •

In the investment community, which matters because the district owes hundreds of millions to bond holders, Hillsborough took a big hit in 2015.

That's when news broke that the main reserve account had lost $200 million in four years. Eakins was brand-new in his job. But, previously, he held positions as high up in the organization as deputy superintendent.

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He insisted then, as he does now, that he had no idea the district was in a financial freefall. His job as director of federal programs was purposefully walled off so there would be no temptation to mingle state and federal spending.

As deputy superintendent, he handled academic matters, not personnel or salary negotiations. He had no way of knowing payroll costs would balloon by nearly $100 million after a teacher improvement venture with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"I was never in those conversations about how that was going to impact," he said.

After word got out, Eakins hired Gibson Consulting Group, experts in school district finances. Their audits offered dozens of cost-cutting ideas. The biggest: Pare down the workforce, which had more than 1,000 too many teachers.

Doing so took three years. Eakins moved slowly, using attrition instead of layoffs and trying not to hurt education.

He ended the peer evaluation system that was created through the Gates partnership, and had added a new layer of staffing and expense. Many now blame the Gates venture, which also led to the new teacher pay plan, for the financial mess.

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RELATED: Sticker Shock: How Hillsborough County's Gates grant became a budget buster

Eakins acknowledges the district should have prepared for when the Gates money ran out. But, he insists, "there are things that we learned about improving teacher practice and improving leadership to support teacher practice that I think we are still benefiting to this day."

While easing the evaluators into other jobs or, for some, retirement, Eakins looked for other ways to shore up the general fund reserve. Early efforts involved a lot of bookkeeping moves: Transferring expenditures from the general fund to other accounts to protect that main reserve.

But labor, which makes up 86 percent of the budget, was by far "the biggest rock," he said.

Administrators combed through staffing lists to find vacancies they could absorb. The workforce shrank by 1,900 over the three years, including nearly 1,000 teachers.

"We are literally at the employee level we were back in 2008, and we have almost 30,000 more kids," Eakins said.

The savings are not obvious upon scrutiny of the budget.

As in prior years, the 2018-19 document shows a gap of more than $100 million between $2.5 billion that will come in, across all funds, and the $2.63 billion it will spend. The general fund shows $25 million in transfers. The final result is a reserve of $146 million, a $5 million improvement over 2017.

Here is how Eakins explained the $25 million in transfers:

School districts must use the general fund to pay employees, even if the work they do falls into another funding category, such as capital. So the money is "fronted" from the general fund, then reclassified for budget purposes. "Those transfers are what all districts do," he said.

As for the gap between spending and revenue, he said, money arrives in different cycles than it is spent. Reserves might be built up for years to pay for $34 million in air conditioning upgrades, as happened this year. It takes more than three years of county impact fees, which are assessed on housing developers, to build a $77 million high school like the one now under way in south Hillsborough.

The budgets do not clearly reflect the benefit of the job cuts. Salaries from the general fund, which passed the $1 billion mark in 2015, never dropped below that amount. One possible explanation: The district is beefing up security to comply with the new state law requiring armed guards at schools.

But Eakins acknowledged that raises also ate into the savings from job cuts, and it's not clear how soon the district and teachers union will renegotiate the pay plan.

He said he is proud he cut about 75 administrative positions, a 22 percent reduction. But the number of employees earning six-figure salaries went up, not down, from 91 to 138. Most are principals who got raises that bumped them over $100,000.

"We recognized and valued the leadership in our schools and how they are really the main leaders that allow our teachers to be retained and our families to be supported," Eakins said.

The Gibson project resulted in economies beyond the job cuts.

The district reported it saved $1.5 million by switching out its light fixtures to LED technology; $1 million by phasing out high school and middle school busing within two miles of schools; and nearly $4 million in other transportation changes, including a new bell schedule that lets buses run more routes.

More than 20 schools are half to a third empty, an ongoing inefficiency. But Eakins does not talk of closing or consolidating schools. He believes the seats will be needed as population grows in up-and-coming city areas such as Seminole Heights and Water Street.

And his preschool initiative, intended to get more kids ready for kindergarten, has placed more than 350 young children in the schools with extra space.

• • •

Just a few months ago leaders of the teachers union, embroiled in a bitter wage dispute, accused Eakins' administration of bad faith and wasteful spending.

Now those same leaders are pulling together to present a united front to voters.

"I don't take it as that much of a pivot," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

"Putting aside negotiations for a moment, I don't think any of us in Florida would agree that we properly fund education. And so in that regard, I feel like this a very consistent thing for us to be arguing for because the conditions our students learn in are the working conditions for our teachers and support staff."

The tax is for a specified list of capital purchases, "not money that people can spend in any manner they chose," she added.

Eakins, for his part, hopes his presentations in the upcoming town hall meetings will get the kind of response he's already received from business leaders.

"When I show slides of the actual number of employees and they see the drop and they see where we are in comparison (to 2008)," he said, "that starts to help people understand, 'Well I run big businesses too, and that's hard to do."

Then, he said, they ask him, "How can I help?"

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.