TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is in bad financial shape and its reputation for sound management is perhaps undeserved, the district's own fiscal team testified Monday in a hearing concerning teacher salaries.
The district "made financial management a priority starting in the very late 1990s," said Jerry Ford, a financial adviser to the district. That's why it retains a AA bond rating, which strengthens its borrowing capacity. But analysts have more recently told district leaders, "Listen guys, your reserve levels don't support your ratings," Ford said.
His testimony before a magistrate was part of the district's case that it cannot honor its pay plan, which would give roughly one-third of its teachers between $15 million and $17 million in raises for the current school year.
Chief business officer Gretchen Saunders testified that the district's unassigned operating reserves, which stand at $99 million, are about $60 million shy of what they should be under School Board policy.
She and Ford assured Special Magistrate Mark Lurie that, with looming construction needs and limited state funding, the district cannot neglect its reserves. If it does, Saunders said, "we are most likely going to be downgraded on our credit ratings."
The hearing, called because the district and union are in a bargaining impasse, gives both sides a chance to bring their arguments to a neutral third party. Lurie will make a recommendation, which will not be binding.
The union says the existing pay plan was negotiated in good faith, that teachers gave up benefits to join it, and that the district has the money to pay them what they expected.
Near the end of Monday's session, union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins hinted that on Wednesday, when the session resumes, she will pinpoint areas where money either exists or has been misspent.
In questioning the district's witnesses, she got Saunders to say that, by cutting 500 teaching jobs this year, the district is saving $27 million. And she noted that each of superintendent Jeff Eakins' cabinet reorganizations cost money, some in higher executive salaries.
"I'm a little confused that at times we want to claim it's a crisis," Baxter-Jenkins said. "Yet we continue to re-arrange chairs and add money at the very top."
Defending the reorganizations — Eakins announced a third one last week — Saunders said it was important to try new approaches because "we have the largest number of lowest performing elementary schools in the state of Florida."
The district says the teachers' requests during this year's bargaining session, including the scheduled raises, would add $53 million to recurring expenses. The union disputes that amount.
Seeking to show teachers are not paid well relative to their peers, the union brought in Graham Picklesimer, a Florida Education Association analyst, to compare hourly earnings and living expenses, district to district.
Hillsborough came in eighth among the 11 compared.
The district's attorneys pointed out that Hillsborough teachers are getting more than $17 million from the state's Best and Brightest teacher bonus initiative, which is based in part on their test scores when they were students. The union said that is a state program and not their concern.
Recounting the history of the pay plan, which came about during teaching reforms funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Baxter-Jenkins said teachers were given higher expectations and met them.
The plan, designed to encourage teachers to stay longer on the job, froze their pay for three years and raised it by $4,000 in the fourth if they got passing evaluation scores. As the timing of the raises depended on when a teacher entered the system, about one-third are affected in any given year.
This year, no one received a year's credit for pay purposes. That means about one-third of the teachers have gone without a raise for almost four years, Baxter-Jenkins said.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @marlenesokol