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Updated budget plan outlines more cuts for Hillsborough schools

An updated budget plan for the Hillsborough County school system calls for a reduction of $130 million in salaries and benefits through the phasing out of 1,700 jobs. The School Board will discuss the plan today. [istock.com]
An updated budget plan for the Hillsborough County school system calls for a reduction of $130 million in salaries and benefits through the phasing out of 1,700 jobs. The School Board will discuss the plan today. [istock.com]
Published Aug. 29, 2017

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is on track to spend $100 million more this year than it gets in taxes, according to a budget the School Board adopted unanimously on Aug. 1.

Is this a problem?

Not necessarily, according to district officials, who will come to today's School Board meeting with an updated plan they say would save $144 million over two years.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough school budget passes first test despite teacher and parent concerns

If the two ideas seem to contradict one another, it's partially because this stage of the budget process can be an exercise in guesswork.

Budget cycles are prescribed strictly by law, but revenues rarely come in on a schedule that corresponds to when the money is needed. During the year, large sums will be transferred around five reserve funds, and in some cases, collected one year to be spent in the next.

"We will only disburse payments for work completed and report the expenditures in years when the work has been finalized," chief business officer Gretchen Saunders wrote in an explanation of the many transfers.

As in years past, some transfers will shore up the main pot of money used for district operations, the general fund. The fund's balance dropped by $200 million a few years ago, raising doubts among credit agencies.

To keep that fund from dipping too far below its current level of $146 million, money will come out of the capital fund to cover maintenance and technology costs.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

One thing is clear: The district will spend less on transportation, now that it is no longer busing middle and high school students who live within two miles of their schools. Those costs will drop from $74.8 million to $61.9 million.

As for how much will be spent on school payrolls — by far the district's biggest expense — the numbers are hard to pin down, based on what officials have released so far.

Overall instructional spending is expected to increase from $1.18 billion to $1.23 billion, according to the preliminary budget, which did not specify how much of that would be spent on salaries.

But, judging from figures in another report, salaries are edging up. They rose from $971 million for the first 11 months of 2015-16 to more than $1 billion over the same period last year.

Numbers like those were not what superintendent Jeff Eakins chose to emphasize in his Aug. 1 statement on the budget. Instead, he noted that the district cut more than 600 jobs last year for a potential savings of $28 million.

The updated plan posted Monday also highlights cuts. Described in a 44-page Powerpoint, it calls for a reduction of $130 million in salaries and benefits through the phasing out of 1,700 jobs.

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The timeline in the report dates back to 2016, indicating some of those cuts have happened already.

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The plan describes four strategies to control payroll: clear and consistent methods of allocating positions, natural attrition, the gradual elimination of jobs not aligned with the district's strategic plan, and merging some departments.

Other ways to save are also listed in the plan, including a $1.5 million reduction in energy spending and an updated payroll reporting system that could save up to $1 million.

School Board members this year have been meeting in committees to air issues such as these and then make recommendations to the full board. A board finance committee met on Thursday. But, through what was described as an oversight, no one notified the public.

District leaders apologized on Monday and said they are developing a system to advertise these meetings, in keeping with Florida law.

Today's School Board meeting, which includes a discussion of the new financial plan, begins at 3 p.m. at district headquarters, 901 E. Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa. A second public hearing and final vote on the budget is scheduled on Sept. 12.

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