Elia says Hillsborough schools 'never engaged in deficit spending' under her watch

Former Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Friday she made no financial missteps while managing the district.
Former Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Friday she made no financial missteps while managing the district.
Published Aug. 7, 2015

TAMPA — Former Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia broke four days of silence Friday with a statement that defended her management record and blasted the School Board members who fired her.

"We never engaged in deficit spending," wrote Elia, now commissioner of education in New York. "We were extremely frugal, reorganizing departments, increasing the number of classes taught by teachers and by reducing the number of months certain employees worked."

As for the reserve fund, now a source of controversy as it has lost $200 million over four years, Elia said she left the fund with well over the $95 million it needs to weather an emergency.

"The school district finances are not in crisis," she said, adding that the board and the district's new superintendent, Jeff Eakins, were kept fully informed.

She went on to slam the members who fired her Jan. 20 in a 4-3 vote.

"The same board members who routinely micromanaged and overstepped their roles, showed a peculiar lack of interest and lack of understanding of the larger financial issues," she wrote. What's more, they "thought it was a wise use of taxpayer dollars to spend over a million dollars to remove me without cause."

While Elia said she could have worked to boost the reserve fund "without the current drama," Eakins said he felt it was necessary to go public with the spending imbalance, which was flagged by two of the district's three bond rating agencies.

"Obviously, she has decided she needs to respond," he said after reading Elia's statement. "And I defend her prerogative to do that. But my whole purpose for meeting with the editorial boards about this issue is, it's real. It is not something we can not resolve, or not engage with."

Elia suggested the reason for negative outlooks by the two bond agencies is not the financial condition she left, but "the perception of a lack of stability in the district."

However, reports from Moody's Investor Service and Fitch Ratings clearly point to changes in the reserve account, commonly called the fund balance.

"After four years of relying on fund balance to subsidize operations, the district's reserve levels have been cut by more than half from their highest levels in fiscal 2011," the Moody's report said.

The Fitch analysts wrote that "the district failed to implement sufficient cost saving measures to offset the financial impact of newly negotiated salary raises and bonuses. Other costs tied to state mandates and transportation also contributed to the imbalance even as state revenues increased."

Moody's also noted the growing popularity of charter schools, which are funded by the state but managed independently. "Charter school enrollment represents a long-term threat to the district," the report said.

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The agencies have not downgraded Hillsborough, which could make it more expensive to borrow money. But they are keeping a close watch as district leaders look for ways to cut costs and stabilize the reserve fund.