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Hillsborough schools could lose $23 million a month for defying state

The district has until Friday to stand its ground on starting the school year online because of the coronavirus, or open campuses this month.

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District stands to lose $23 million a month in funding if it does not adhere to Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran’s order to open schools by the end of this month, early estimates show.

School Board member Lynn Gray told the Tampa Bay Times that superintendent Addison Davis used that figure in a conversation. Member Cindy Stuart, separately, texted the same number to a Times reporter. Stuart later said district leaders told her that estimate came from the state Department of Education.

Related: DeSantis praises charter school as Hillsborough delays public school openings

The district stands to save about $1 million in transportation for every month that it does not bus children to school, the board members said. That amount reflects the fact that there will be some school bus costs, as the district will deliver food to families who qualify.

But the financial hit will be huge, nonetheless, if the board holds to the position it adopted on Thursday, to offer only distance learning for the first four weeks of school because of the coronavirus.

That decision, which led to a harsh rebuke from Corcoran, contradicts a reopening plan that the board previously adopted, and which the state approved. That earlier plan, similar to others around the state, allowed families to choose either in-person or distance learning beginning on Aug. 24.

Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran during a roundtable discussion Monday at Winthrop College Prep Academy in Riverview. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Gray said Tuesday that the board has tentatively scheduled a special meeting for 1 p.m. on Thursday to discuss its next steps. She also said Davis plans a trip to Tallahassee before that time.

Related: Hillsborough’s plan to keep schools closed hits state roadblock

In his letter to the district last week, Corcoran gave the district a deadline of this coming Friday either to return to its original plan or specify how it will serve those students who wish to return physically to school, and now will not have that option.

In an appearance Monday at a Riverview charter school alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis, Corcoran did not acknowledge any financial penalty in the way he is treating districts. “We did the emergency order so that those locals would not have to worry about getting funded less,” he said.

Stuart, on Tuesday, called that statement a “play on words.”

Consider Corcoran’s July 6 school reopening order, Stuart said. “That executive order is very clear,” she said. “Districts must provide (a physical school option) and have it available for all students. We’re not doing that. It’s also very clear that an innovative plan will be funded if you follow the executive order, and we’re not following the executive order.”

In fact, as Corcoran stated Monday that he was giving flexibility to the school districts, he said the same must be extended to families. The intent of his order, he said, was to “give them all that flexibility and we we will fully funded them.”

If the Hillsborough district and board stand their ground, the financial consequences will be severe. “It will make us broke,” said Gray, who is still pledging to follow the advice of medical authorities who told the board they should not open schools until the coronavirus threat subsides.

Stuart, who initially took that position, said she does not believe the district is able to serve the tens of thousands of students who rely on physical school and have neither the technology nor the supervision to learn at home.

Related: How coronavirus is spreading in Florida

Nor does she think staying closed will be effective in stopping the continued coronavirus spread. Children will gather anyway, she said, in child care centers and other, non-district school settings.

“E-learning centers are popping up everywhere,” she said. “There are three places that I pass between Dale Mabry (Highway) and the tennis courts in Northdale that are opening e-learning centers.”

There was no comment Tuesday morning from the school district.

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