1. Opinion

Hillsborough schools need to live within their means | Editorial

District right to take a closer, careful look at spending

Hillsborough County’s new schools superintendent, Addison Davis, is on the right track in a sensitive quest to control the budget. Hillsborough needs to bring its spending in line, and that requires a closer examination of individual campuses. Davis must proceed carefully, and involve teachers, parents and community leaders in shaping the future of the school system. But this examination should make the school district stronger, and shed valuable light on where it needs to focus its limited resources.

Davis and Deputy Superintendent Michael Kemp have begun meeting with groups of principals in what could be a two-year budget realignment process. Davis is telling principals they must live within their means. As the Tampa Bay Times' Marlene Sokol reported, schools have for years launched grant-funded programs, using the money to hire extra personnel. But these positions often remain on the payroll long after the grants have expired. And there’s been no routine questioning of whether the programs should remain or whether the district can and should absorb these extra personnel costs.

Davis' predecessor, Jeff Eakins, reined in the budget after taking over in 2015, acting on a consultant’s report that found Hillsborough was overstaffed compared to peer counties. With 24,000 employees, the school district has about the same number of teaching and related staff jobs as Broward County, a larger school district. That would suggest there is room to cut in the district’s $2 billion general fund budget. Davis said he doesn’t have a fixed target, though he is looking at up to $200 million in potential recurring savings. Staff attrition and reassignments could help soften any cuts to the workforce. Davis is asking principals to defend their staffing and programs, a process that could help redirect resources to dozens of the county’s worst-performing schools, many of them in poor, minority neighborhoods.

As with any new chief executive, Davis deserves the opportunity to bring a fresh perspective and to make his stamp on the organization he leads. His school-by-school examination will give him a fuller understanding of individual campuses and communities. And it rightly will make school principals more accountable for what happens under their watch, from spending on substitute teachers to high-level administrators. Davis is not rushing the process, and he underscores the need to use attrition, vacancies and smarter hiring strategies to avoid the impact of layoffs.

This closer look would be welcome anytime, but it’s particularly essential now, as the district manages a $32 million drop in its reserves. It also faces a range of financial pressures, from the added costs for technology and cleaning in response to the coronavirus pandemic to a loss in per-pupil funding from students leaving for privately-run schools. The district also needs to consider closing or downsizing some schools that operate below capacity to save huge, fixed operating costs.

Davis will need to maintain his balanced approach. He needs to keep teachers, parents and community leaders in the loop about plans for individual schools, and ensure that struggling students continue to receive the extra academic support they need. This is a chance to make the school system more efficient, more accountable, and better targeted to student outcomes. That all begins with a healthy bottom line.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news