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Clerical jobs to go first as Hillsborough school officials look for more budget cuts

TAMPA — About 50 clerical workers in the Hillsborough County School District's central offices have had their jobs eliminated and are looking for other district positions as officials look to steer more money to classrooms.

"They are saying that nobody is going to lose a job completely, which is a benefit," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, director of the teachers' union, which also represents clerical workers. Officials say they will also get to keep their current pay for a year, even if they land in jobs at lower pay grades.

The cuts — affecting offices in downtown and East Tampa — are consistent with Superintendent Jeff Eakins' stated goal of pushing more resources out to schools. They are also the first clear sign that the district is following the advice of Gibson Consulting Group, which is being paid $818,000 to help reverse years of deficit spending that last year sounded alarm bells.

Other changes will follow, including night shifts for custodians and a reduction in the number of assistant principals.

"My job is to think about the kids," said chief of staff Alberto Vazquez, whose job last year was to make sure the district's reserves did not dip below $146 million following losses of more than $200 million since 2011. Those losses to the so-called "general fund" put the district in danger of having its credit rating lowered, which would make borrowing more expensive.

At a Sept. 6 budget hearing, district leaders said the general fund reserve grew this past year by $51,000 but they gave no specifics.

Soon after, School Board chairwoman April Griffin requested a full accounting of the how the savings happened. She also asked for a workshop on the cuts to be scheduled in October.

Vazquez responded Monday with a detailed list that shows the district:

• Cut $51.5 million in expenses from its general fund, and pared it by an additional $68.8 million by transferring costs to other funds. Cafeteria cleaning services, for example, are now covered in a separate food services account.

• Implemented a 90-day hiring freeze that saved $9.9 million.

• Reduced energy costs by $6 million.

• Saved $5.7 million by renegotiating vendor contracts for services such as recycling, trash pickup and copy machines. "I looked over maybe 2,000-plus contracts myself," Vazquez said.

• Cut $3.2 million by making adjustments to school staffing.

• Kept a close eye on overtime pay in the transportation department, saving more than $1 million.

• Discovered it was paying too much in bonuses to teachers in the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and AVID programs, and cut those payments by $1.7 million.

The district also closed purchase orders on products that were no longer in use or deemed ineffective, saving nearly $1 million.

Separate budget documents show the district last year cut $20 million by spending less on materials and supplies, including cleaning supplies and paper.

Looking ahead, the district this year is saving roughly $8 million by doing away with peer evaluators, the classroom visitors who had a key roll in a teacher evaluation system that was developed with help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The 165 former evaluators either left the district, returned to the classroom or moved into other jobs.

Courtesy busing for children who live near the schools, which costs nearly $10 million a year, should cost less in the coming year because the district is using short-distance shuttles instead of including those students on the main runs. That step makes it possible to get by with fewer buses and drivers.

And, as the Gibson firm recommended, the district foresees a cleaning system that will send crews into schools at night when children are not underfoot.

The Tampa Bay Times, which performed its own analysis using payroll spreadsheets, found the district has 936 fewer employees on its payroll this year than last, representing $22 million in pay.

Vazquez said that difference — most pronounced in lower-paid jobs — comes largely from retirements, and the fact that some workers left the district, unable to make ends meet on wages as low as $8.19 an hour.

There are fewer non-classroom "resource teachers." Vazquez said that number will need to come down even further, along with other non-classroom positions such as academic intervention specialists and success coaches.

Meanwhile, the number of jobs paying $100,000 or more went up — from 91 to 96. That trend will end as well, Vazquez said.

A sore spot with some board members is the use of "administrators on special assignment," a group that includes principals who are removed because of poor performance but get office jobs and keep their full pay for a year. A proposed new policy would end the practice of protecting those salaries.

Gibson also is looking at administrators and supervisors. The firm's next report is expected in about a week.

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