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Following budget problems, Hillsborough School Board members want a full-scale efficiency audit

In July, the Hillsborough County School Board learned that the district was spending down its reserves. The account was well over the legal threshold but shrinking at a speed that alarmed bond rating firms, which affects the district’s ability to borrow. [iStockphoto.com photo illustration] 
In July, the Hillsborough County School Board learned that the district was spending down its reserves. The account was well over the legal threshold but shrinking at a speed that alarmed bond rating firms, which affects the district’s ability to borrow. [iStockphoto.com photo illustration] 
Published Nov. 4, 2015

TAMPA — Hillsborough County School Board members called Tuesday for a top-of-the-line efficiency study to correct runaway spending that, if unchecked, would threaten the district's credit.

Board members made it clear at a workshop that they trust superintendent Jeff Eakins and don't want anyone to think the district is in a crisis.

But after years of questions under the leadership of MaryEllen Elia and a July surprise that the reserve fund was being depleted, members want a holistic look at spending.

"Coming from the business sector, I am astonished at some of the things that I see," said board member Cindy Stuart. "With all the planning we have done, this is a natural next step."

No price was given, but Texas consultant Greg Gibson compared the effort to one in Clark County, Nev. His firm's study there cost $900,000 but turned up savings of $17 million from just one recommendation, he said. Gibson did a more limited study for Hillsborough in 2002.

Eakins said although his team is already working to cut costs, an outside look will bring objectivity. "We're steeped in tradition in Hillsborough County," said Eakins, a 26-year employee.

Member April Griffin agreed. "We have had hundreds of audits on a regular basis," she said. "And yet we still find ourselves in the position we are in right now."

Areas of study will include financial management, transportation, human resources, purchasing and contracting. A full report is not expected until the 2016-17 school year is under way. But Gibson said his firm can begin with issues that affect the next budget, which is prepared in the summer.

Eakins and board members said they learned in July that the district was spending down its reserves. The account was well over the legal threshold but shrinking at a speed that alarmed bond rating firms, which affects the district's ability to borrow.

As she has done before, board member April Griffin assured Eakins, "I do not hold you accountable for the past, I hold you accountable for the solutions."

In September, Eakins said that before the austerity measures began, the district was on track to spend $142 million more than it should.

The biggest factor identified was payroll: A pay plan the district adopted in 2013 as it rolled out a new teacher evaluation system increased teachers' salaries by $65 million a year. Performance bonuses, now mandated by state law, added another $12.7 million.

The district is now contemplating dramatic changes to the evaluation system, which it developed under a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that ends in 2016. A committee is meeting to discuss what parts of the system to keep and what parts to discard.

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Tuesday's discussion showed a board that is optimistic about its new leadership but concerned about finances.

Board member Doretha Edgecomb lamented that "tomorrow's headlines will read a variation of things." She asked Eakins, "How can we talk about the prospect of this work as being important and urgent, but not a crisis?"

Eakins said the message should be, "The goal is to be great. And in order to be a great organization, you have to be hitting on all cylinders in all that you do."

Griffin said there is nothing wrong with acknowledging long-standing problems. "If you look back at past reports on transportation, you can probably take the dates off of them and they'd be the same," she said.

As much as she wants to move forward, she said, "I just don't believe we can move forward without looking back."

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

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