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Hillsborough schools to gradually cut payroll as reserves dwindle

Superintendent Addison Davis promises limits on spending. Some School Board members say an outside audit is needed.

TAMPA — A $50 million reduction in the Hillsborough County School District’s reserves was not caused by a miscalculation in the cost of pay raises, as officials suggested earlier this month.

The bulk of the shortfall came from state funding losses and increased expenses, including many related to the COVID-19 crisis, the district’s chief financial officer Gretchen Saunders told the School Board in a detailed presentation on Tuesday.

But hiring about 500 new employees over the course of last school year did help boost the cost of those raises by $10 million, she said.

Superintendent Addison Davis vowed to exercise a new level of austerity moving forward.

“We want to make sure we are very intentional,” he said. A district hiring freeze is in effect, as no one can say for sure how many students will show up when the 2020-21 school year begins on Aug 24.

Tuesday’s discussion, coming in a workshop hours before the board’s first public hearing on an annual budget of more than $3 billion, brought some surprises and a demand by board member Stacy Hahn for an outside, forensic audit.

“I am no more confident today than when you brought information to us at that last board meeting,” Hahn said, recalling Saunders’ presentation on July 7.

Related: Hillsborough school district in financial straits, again

“Now there’s a different story presented today. That doesn’t instill confidence in me.”

This page from a Hillsborough County School District PowerPoint shows how $38 million in salary increases turned into $48 million last school year. Chief finance officer Gretchen Saunders said the district added more than 500 positions between the fall negotiations and the end of the year. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]

Davis disclosed that consultant Jim Hamilton is no longer available. A former Hillsborough deputy superintendent, Hamilton was going to perform the audit for free as a service of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

Davis said he does not know if he can commission another audit through the association or any other membership organization. “The problem is, everybody is dealing with the pandemic right now,” he said.

The board debated whether the district needs more long-term financial planning.

Board member Cindy Stuart defended the district’s use of its reserve dollars. “This money was not spent erroneously,” she said, remarking that no one bought a solid gold jet. “This money was spent on things the district needed at the time.”

Steve Cona and Melissa Snively, however, lamented that the district has a long history of over-hiring without regard for the bottom line.

Snively said the organization likes to “throw people at problems.” In 2016, when the district was struggling with a similar operating shortfall, a paid consultant found the teacher-to-student ratios in Hillsborough were out of line with other large districts. She wondered if that might be happening again.

Davis made it clear that, although he does not anticipate layoffs, the district will need to be a lot more frugal.

Within the first 20 days of the school year, he said, each principal will have to defend their staffing schedule. He alluded to a surplus of 21 administrators. “We don’t have a tree that grows money.” Davis said.

Without being given any detail about the 500 newly hired employees, some board members said they were still confused and needed more information.

Moving forward, Davis said new hires will be authorized only for three reasons: To meet state class size limits, to improve under-performing schools for equity purposes, or to support a particular school-based program.

In any of these cases, he said, he will approve the new positions personally.