Hillsborough schools' budget woes were worse than we knew

Hillsborough schools superintendent Jeff Eakins told the School Board that he has outlined steps to prepare for the coming year.
Hillsborough schools superintendent Jeff Eakins told the School Board that he has outlined steps to prepare for the coming year.
Published June 21, 2017

TAMPA — Two years after a financial meltdown that Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins refused to call "a crisis," he told a roomful of district employees just how bad things were.

The main reserve account lost $83.6 million between 2014 and 2015. And that was after the district transferred $55 million in, much of it from a workers compensation fund.

The nation's eighth-largest school district, it turns out, was on track to lose another $130 million or more the next year. "That would have put us below zero dollars," Eakins said Tuesday.

Sobering statistics like these were met with radical cost-cutting ideas as School Board members spent the day at a workshop, trying to come to grips with a funding shortage now entering its third year.

They made no decisions, although ideas ranged from having teachers fill in for each other instead of hiring substitutes, to charging students money to run cross country or play tennis.

Board member Sally Harris wanted to outsource as much labor as possible. "If they have to work overtime, it's not our overtime," she said.

April Griffin insisted schools be held harmless in any cuts. Lynn Gray thought the schools could live without teacher mentors and coaches, using department heads to assume those duties.

About all the board members agreed on was that they will balance their budget this year, which is a legal requirement anyway.

But, as Eakins emphasized, structural problems largely related to high payroll costs are getting in the way of a system they can sustain.

"You never use your (reserves) for recurring costs," he said. "You wouldn't do it in your household. You don't do it here."

Little was said about state funding, which is outside the control of district leaders.

And Eakins opened the session with a victory lap of sorts. In the past year, he said, he has cut 613 jobs.

That includes a 2 percent reduction in payroll among teachers and school administrators and 3 percent in support workers. It's a 9.5 percent reduction in the cost of district-level administrators.

And Eakins insisted every decision is being made with children in mind.

"We want to make sure that we can say yes to all the right things we want to do for our kids," he said, adding that "in spite of all of this, our graduation rates are going up."

As the day progressed, the suggestions continued.

Board member Melissa Snively wondered: Should principals be held accountable when their students leave for charter schools, or to be homeschooled?

Griffin asked if the district should open some of its own charter schools, as some others do. Perhaps they could declare a state of emergency in some communities. Potter Elementary, for example, has had an F grade four years in a row.

Eakins acknowledged that the major education bill Gov. Rick Scott recently signed into law (HB 7069) could provide opportunities for such schools.

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They agreed to discuss district-run charters at a future workshop. They also agreed that contracts must be closely scrutinized, and that the administration needs to be more transparent about how it evaluates existing contracts.

Relatively little was said about the deteriorating state of many buildings and their air conditioners, or the debt from past construction that's close to $1 billion.

Eakins did outline steps he has already taken as he prepares for the coming year. A hiring freeze, still ongoing, helped identify 100 vacancies that are considered "stale" and will not be filled.

And, in places where charter schools are expected to attract many district students, the school system will be especially conservative about hiring teachers.

Referring to the company that supplies substitute teachers for the district, Eakins said, "Right now we are working with Kelly Subs."

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