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Eakins says Hillsborough school finances might get a look from outside auditor

Jeff Eakins is seeking to trim the budget by $75 million.
Jeff Eakins is seeking to trim the budget by $75 million.
Published Aug. 12, 2015

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins has so many questions about the district's finances, he is considering hiring an outside auditor to look at the books.

Speaking at Tuesday's School Board meeting, he said he has asked his head of procurement to research contracts used in other districts, and draft a request for proposals, in case he needs to take that step.

"It's going to be an available service," Eakins said, adding that he doesn't know if he will need it.

When asked if the possibility means he didn't trust his staff, Eakins said: "It's not that we don't trust them. But if there's certain areas where we want to dig a little deeper, we might want someone to look at it objectively, just so we get the right kind of feedback. We owe that to the organization, to make sure we've done it thoroughly."

Eakins is seeking to trim some $75 million in spending and get back in the good graces of bond rating agencies, which recently issued negative reports based on the rapid depletion of Hillsborough's general fund, otherwise known as the reserve account.

The district spent more than $200 million from the fund in the past four years, much of it for teacher pay raises. While the fund is still well above the legal minimum, it might not have been after another year of similar spending.

As he informed the board about his ongoing efforts to balance the budget, Eakins also sought to reassure the district's 30,000 employees that he is not out to jeopardize their jobs.

"We're taking care of our employees," he said. As students return to school on Aug. 25, "The last thing I want our employees to think about is finances."

Beyond Eakins' remarks, which came in response to a question by board member April Griffin, little was said about the reserve account situation the superintendent disclosed publicly last week.

Griffin and board chairwoman Susan Valdes did ask questions, during a presentation about grant-funded behavior and mental health programs, about the cost to sustain them when the grants ran out.

Board member Doretha Edgecomb suggested that future budget workshops be held in the main auditorium with more detailed information for the board to consider. The workshops are now held in a cramped second-floor conference room. Unlike board meetings, they are not televised.

Board member Carol Kurdell, responding to comments some board members made previously about the financial management of former superintendent MaryEllen Elia, said she was glad Elia, now New York state commissioner of education, issued a statement defending her record.

"Nothing illegal was done," Kurdell said. "Nothing wrong was done. A fund was used to cover some expenses."

Eakins plans to give the board a more complete report about finances at a Sept. 29 meeting.

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