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Hillsborough school system's finances called 'very dire' as money issues consume district leaders

Board member April Griffin called the situation “very dire.”
Board member April Griffin called the situation “very dire.”
Published Apr. 26, 2017

TAMPA — It was a long day of reckoning in the Hillsborough County school system, as board members, consultants and administrators discussed a variety of issues pertaining to rising costs and scarce public funds.

In three separate sessions Tuesday, the School Board tossed around ways to manage a $3 billion operation while wrestling with population growth, aging buildings and a political climate that increasingly favors alternatives to government-run public schools.

Chief business officer Gretchen Saunders showed the board more than two dozen areas where expenses are climbing above current levels, in some cases by tens of millions of dollars — from employee health insurance to money gobbled up by charter schools.

Funding amounts from Tallahassee are still unknown. And Hillsborough's cost-cutting efforts so far do not appear to be sufficient.

Florida's per-student funding is at 2007 levels, said board member April Griffin, "and it is 2017." She later proclaimed that "our situation is dire. It is very dire."

There was some good news at the first workshop of the day, to discuss the district's final efficiency report from the Gibson Consulting Group.

Gibson commended district leaders on having already taken steps outlined in the 2016 report. The district has reduced 250 teaching jobs, saving $16 million.

But that's a quarter of the cuts the firm recommended to bring Hillsborough in line with other districts of comparable size.

What's more, the study said inconsistency in teacher training and lesson planning might contribute to a weakness in special education. State test scores are lower among students with disabilities than those without disabilities, and those gaps are wider in Hills­borough than elsewhere in the state.

A low point came early in the afternoon when, during a budget workshop, Griffin pointedly asked Saunders if Hillsborough can afford to keep honoring a pay plan negotiated during the teaching reforms in 2013.

Saunders shook her head, no. She acknowledged that every year, with some teachers receiving $4,000 raises on a three-year schedule, payroll costs rise by at least $17 million.

That exchange drew a rebuttal from union leader Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, who said the district would face rising salaries even under the old pay plan.

But the unpleasantness wasn't over.

At a 3:30 p.m. meeting, after hearing from homeowners who are angry about a school boundary change in New Tampa, the board was asked to vote on new school hours for 2018-19.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins made a compelling case that as long as the current system remains, about 10,000 students will arrive late to school each day.

While he agreed to hold off implementation for a year to give families time to adjust, no one seemed happy.

"Arrival to school is so key," said board chairwoman Cindy Stuart. "I have teachers who have two lesson plans, one for the kids who arrive late and one for the kids who arrive on time."

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Board member Melissa Snively, who is smarting from an earlier busing cutback that hits her east Hillsborough district hard, said the district committed "bait and switch" by presenting the idea as being good for students when it originated as one of Gibson's cost-cutting moves.

She cast the dissenting vote before the time changes passed 6-1, adding that, "I'm not a fan of how this whole initiative was communicated" and that "we have failed."

Stuart suggested the district rethink its emphasis on shoring up its reserve account. That goal is not realistic, she and Griffin said, when schools have needs that include faulty air conditioners and roofs.

Stuart questioned whether the district should adhere strictly to state class-size limits or go over the limits and pay a fine, as some districts do.

Although the board members spent the entire day together, they left agreeing they need another workshop. Board member Susan Valdes said it should be just about the budget — and all day.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.