A pressing test for Hillsborough school leaders
Trust deficit compounds fiscal deficit in righting school district’s finances
Hillsborough County School Superintendent Addison Davis, pictured on left and also on the video display, as he addresses the school board during a special meeting at the district's headquarters in Tampa on Friday.
Hillsborough County School Superintendent Addison Davis, pictured on left and also on the video display, as he addresses the school board during a special meeting at the district's headquarters in Tampa on Friday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published April 23, 2021|Updated April 23, 2021

Friday’s two-hour emergency meeting of the Hillsborough County School Board went on for 120 minutes too long, but it managed to lurch, at its merciful end, toward an uneasy truce between the embattled superintendent and his increasingly impatient board. Thursday’s letter from Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran threatening to strip the cash-strapped district of some budget authority certainly nudged the two sides together. But there’s a deficit of trust here, not only of finances, and with the clock running, it will take a breakthrough in the relationship between Superintendent Addison Davis and the board to see the crisis through.

Chairwoman Lynn Gray called Friday’s meeting to reveal another bone of contention with Davis — this one coming from Hillsborough school administrators. A new survey of principals, managers and other supervisory personnel reportedly shows broad dissatisfaction with Davis. That shouldn’t be any surprise, given that Davis is planning to cut more than 1,000 positions to stabilize the district’s chronically unbalanced budget. People losing their jobs generally don’t form cheering sections. This meeting offered little but to restate the obvious, to increase internal friction and to heighten public worries over the school system.

Davis has made mistakes since becoming superintendent last year, micro-managing and not being responsive enough to his elected board. But he’s also cleaning up a financial crisis a decade in the making, and made clear that the years-old practice of robbing Peter to pay Paul is over, now that hundreds of millions of dollars in cash reserves have been drained by runaway spending.

To that end, Corcoran’s letter Thursday was a timely shot across the bow. The commissioner vowed to put Hillsborough in financial receivership if it failed to comply with a Florida law that requires districts to maintain reserves equal to 2 percent of revenues. District leaders have warned for months that, absent deep cuts in spending or new revenue, they would run out of money in June. Corcoran asked for a detailed financial recovery plan within 20 days. The board agreed Friday to hold several sessions to meet that request.

The commissioner’s letter was a face-saving way to justify Friday’s board meeting. The board already had scheduled a meeting next week to work with Davis on his management and communications skills. That’s shorthand for the off-putting relationship that exists between a boss and subordinate. Whether Davis can change his style, or the board its expectations, remains to be seen. Friday’s meeting, under the glare of public scrutiny, brought a mishmash of platitudes and promises. It also was an exercise in chess from top school leaders who don’t want to bear the blame for staffing cuts.

The very real threat of a state takeover should be enough to bring the two sides together. Hillsborough has already unveiled a plan to stabilize its budget. But improving the budget picture will be a year in the making. Corcoran brought some much-needed urgency to the effort. If that fosters a more collaborative spirit among the superintendent and the board, great.

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The goal here, of course, is to right-size the budget, rebuild cash reserves and strengthen the school system of a growing metropolitan area. And hopefully soon, as board member Stacy Hahn aptly pointed out, the board can start focusing more on students than the employees. “Adults, adults, adults,” Hahn said, asking: Where are the board meetings about children in failing schools?

Davis and the board need to get through this crisis, whether by building a stronger relationship or simply gritting through their responsibilities. If that sounds difficult, they should imagine taking their cues from an outsider in Tallahassee with a far different vision for public education.

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