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  1. Education

In Hillsborough, another new plan for struggling schools draws questions

TAMPA — The same day he told his School Board about a $12.3 million budget deficit, Hillsborough County superintendent Jeff Eakins unveiled his most ambitious plan yet to rescue 49 district schools from a long cycle of low grades and neglect.

"We have to start asking questions that maybe we have never asked ourselves before," he said Tuesday. "This really implies that the whole system has to change. The whole structure in our organization has to change."

With that, he and his lieutenants took the board through the Achievement Schools project, a shake-up designed to direct top principals, teachers and support services to schools in disadvantaged communities.

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There were equally dramatic statements from assistant superintendent Tricia McManus, who told the board, "This is about equal results, finally. Unless we actually implement practices that are truly through a lens of equity, we will not get there. And the time is now."

McManus and her team spoke at a time of uncertainty and deep skepticism, both on the board and in the workforce.

Millions of dollars are needed to add armed security to more than 100 schools in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre and new state laws that followed. The district also is trying to satisfy 20,000 teachers, aides and clerical workers who spent this school year working at last year's pay rates. Bargaining resumed Monday after a six-month standstill, and the two sides will return on Wednesday to discuss the district's offer to put $30 million toward raises next year.

But, as the board learned in a second workshop, new demands from the state exceed new revenues by $12.3 million.

In that climate, board members asked a lot of questions about money. McManus insisted the district can reallocate existing funds and personnel to bring about the Achievement Schools project without new money.

But nearly all the board members questioned that assumption.

And they asked why they should have confidence in the Achievement Schools initiative, which follows Eakins' short-lived Office of Priority Schools and his Elevate Schools initiative.

"Why so fast?" asked board member Tamara Shamburger, who was elected from some of Hillsborough's low-income neighborhoods, and has fielded questions from black community leaders.

"The common theme has been, how is this going to be different?" she said. "I certainly don't want my constituents, our most high-needs students, to ever be treated as lab rats."

Board member Cindy Stuart said "the plan, for me, is a one-size-fits-all, top-down model." She wants the district to assess needs at each of the 49 schools.

Board member Lynn Gray wanted to know how the district would get parents more involved. And member Susan Valdes reminded Gray that parental involvement looks different in different communities with some parents unable to spend time physically in the schools.

She also asked if district leaders could carry out the plan.

"I see a lot of the same faces," she said, looking out at the administrators. "Are we really willing to change the system?"

Eakins said community meetings are ongoing and the plan is still in its beginning phases.

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Nevertheless, he plans to bring the board a reorganization on May 15 that will reassign some of his area superintendents to create a separate staff for the Achievement Schools.

He said he looks forward to replaying Tuesday's meeting video a year or two from now so everyone could see that the issues were resolved.

And he denied, as he has in the past, that his prior efforts did not yield results. Elevate — in which the school district identified seven schools for special attention — taught district leaders lessons, he said, including the need for preschool options that get students ready for kindergarten.

"You have to believe," he said. "It starts with that. It starts with confidence."

Eakins was also upbeat in the budget workshop. He outlined $60 million in "new revenue" he has captured through efficiencies including a bell schedule that makes better use of the bus fleet, and the elimination of hundreds of jobs.

Stuart, aware of mounting pressure for a schools tax referendum, corrected him. "We didn't create revenue, we cut expenses," she said. "We're not out there having bake sales."

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