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Hillsborough schools confront the budget gap | Editorial
Time to right-size schools and staff and better target student spending.
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis talks to board members during a Hillsborough County School Board meeting Nov. 17.
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis talks to board members during a Hillsborough County School Board meeting Nov. 17. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 16, 2021

The Hillsborough County School District is finally facing its longstanding budget crisis, and the way out won’t be cheap or easy. Job cuts, higher taxes and school consolidations are all on the table — proposals that will surely test the elected board and the very different makeup and priorities of urban and suburban neighborhoods. At least officials have begun sending the right message that the day of reckoning is here, and that any solution must be broad-based and focused first on serving students.

District officials painted a grim picture during a workshop Tuesday. By June, the nation’s seventh-largest school system might run out of money. Expenses far exceed revenues — and have for years. Last fall, the district took out a short-term loan of $75 million to meet payroll, even though it has shifted about $40 million annually from its capital fund in recent years to cover operations. Its reserve balance has dropped to less than 4 percent of revenue, from nearly 7 percent. And compared to like-sized districts, Hillsborough has little to show for the spending, officials noted Tuesday, with higher staffing levels and more low-performing schools than other peer counties in Florida.

Superintendent Addison Davis has taken several steps to right-size the budget since taking office last year, cutting hundreds of vacant positions, reassigning scores of district employees and reducing spending on overtime and travel. But he hopes to generate nearly $117 million this year in new revenue and savings, including $100 million in federal pandemic relief and millions in cuts through employee furlough days, vacancies and other reductions. For the 2021-2022 school year, that target rises to $186.3 million, with a savings of $148 million on staffing and another $20 million in temporary furlough days. The district might also close or consolidate under-enrolled schools, or institute zoning changes to even out enrollment. Davis said 60 schools (out of the district’s 222) were operating at below 70 percent capacity. These are common-sense considerations that need to be addressed before the district even toys with asking taxpayers for more.

There’s every reason that an efficient operation can better serve taxpayers and students alike. Board members were rightly concerned about any impact to the classroom. Davis pledged Tuesday that any retooling of the bureaucracy would put students first. He vowed to seek additional state funding for schools, and to inventory school properties on the chance that some could be sold and the proceeds redirected to classrooms. Davis also promised to continue with the years-long, halting effort to improve academic performance at struggling schools in heavily-Black east Tampa. A closer eye on spending equity across the district could provide much-needed additional resources to these inner-city classrooms.

Officials will explore a range of recommendations in the coming months. It likely will take a combination of cuts and new revenue to get the district’s finances on a sustainable track. Board members need a plan and show of commitment before they could hope to approach voters in 2022 for a new taxing source. And closing neighborhood schools brings controversy of its own, especially in minority communities, which were forced to fight long and hard for equal educational opportunities.

Tuesday’s workshop was a candid, thoughtful start to this difficult conversation. Hillsborough’s school system cannot be strong unless its finances are stable. The district needs to fuse its mission with its means, and think strategically about every dollar. That’s the surest way to channel its limited resources toward the best academic outcomes.

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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

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