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  1. Opinion

Ruth: An investment in bureaucracy over kids

Money can't buy you love. But you can certainly load up on a buck- passing of bureaucrats.

Perhaps you indulged in a bit of naivete in assuming that when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a $100 million grant to the Hillsborough County School District in 2009, this unexpected windfall would do wonders in improving the education of our little darlings.

It appears the wonders never ceased. Instead of pouring the Gates money into improving troubled schools, enhancing classroom teaching tools, underwriting reforms and teacher compensation, the moolah appears to have paid for one giant bacchanalia of paper-pushing.

As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Marlene Sokol reported, the Gates largess was used to create entirely new layers of bureaucracy of mentors and "peer evaluators'' who never worked with students. Pay raises of more than $8,000 were doled out among school employees. Suburban school teachers received the lion's share of the raises rather than educators toiling away in more demanding urban classrooms. For example, at Bevis Elementary in the FishHawk Ranch community, 23 teachers received raises of $8,000 or more. At Clair Mel Elementary situated in less tony circumstances, only two employees received a raise, and one of those was a "peer evaluator" with precious little contact with students.

And then there was the nearly 25 percent of the Gates money, $23 million, that was spent on consultants.

One might expect a $100 million infusion in a school district would result in vastly improved graduation rates. Not quite. Indeed Hillsborough's graduation has dropped to 10th across the state.

Even with the Gates money, Hillsborough students still lag behind other large school districts in graduation rates. And, Sokol noted, poor schools are still populated by the least experienced teachers, proving perhaps that no good deed goes unexploited.

Prior to the Gates money plopping onto then-superintendent MaryEllen Elia's lap, the Hillsborough school district had no "peer evaluators." Today there are 265 evaluators at a cost of $52 million a year, suggesting that much like water, clipboards also find their own level.

In many respects the school system acted like one of those lottery winners who collects a $100 million check and immediately starts investing all of it in Syrian Club Med resorts.

Tens of millions on employees who don't interact with students. Tens of millions on consultants, who failed to offer the solid advice not to spent millions of dollars on consultants. Millions in raises to schools in affluent communities, while more wanting schools go wanting.

And now, because of Elia's spending spree, her successor, Jeff Eakins, finds himself presiding over the eighth largest school district in the country and having to borrow $68.5 million from its reserve fund to meet payroll.

The Gates grant is set to expire next year. What grade should the school district receive for its stewardship of such a generous infusion of money?

Declining graduation rates. The district's budget is bleeding dollars. Poor kids still have the greenest teachers. Money is so tight, the district, already burdened with one of the oldest school bus fleets in the state, could not afford to the replace the vehicles.

On the plus side, consultants have done quite well by Gates. And if you ever aspired to a career as a "peer evaluator" Hills­borough County apparently is the "peer evaluator" capital of Florida.

It ought not be unreasonable to expect — or even demand — that a $100 million grant should buy something more than academic status quo and bureaucratic bloating.

Too much to ask? Or about $100 million worth of "Really?"

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