1. Opinion

A Times editorial: Troubled Hillsborough school district faces financial, leadership crisis

The budget's tapped out. Too many air conditioners don't work. Some schools are half full; others are bursting at the seams. So many parents are sending their kids to privately run charter schools that the local system is exploring new destination schools itself. Board members snipe openly during team-building exercises, and one board member faces yet another complaint she misused her position for political gain. Oh, and the Hillsborough County School District is talking about asking taxpayers for more money.

The nation's eighth-largest public school system is in serious trouble, with its finances and leadership in turmoil. It shouldn't expect to see another dime until it right-sizes the budget, crafts a better strategy for educating a diverse, urban community and begins to bring more competent and mature leadership to the elected School Board. Every one of these solutions is at least a year away.

None of the problems causing this public crisis of confidence in the district was accidental, came overnight or occurred in a vacuum. Administrators spent too much money on teachers and boutique academic programs, then failed to address the raid on cash reserves until the losses turned into an emergency. Board members were slow to respond to demographic changes in the county that put new financial pressures on the school system; now the district faces another building boom in areas where it has few options for consolidating existing facilities.

Hillsborough has to find $1 billion for new schools and another $1 billion for the backlog in maintenance on schools it already owns. The sense of despair was captured during one budget meeting this summer, when a teacher told the board she was bringing not only pencils but hand soap and toilet paper to her place of business. What sort of work environment is that?

The district is slowly clawing back from its financial crisis, having frozen hundreds of positions and shaved tens of millions of dollars in salary costs by shedding more than 600 employees through attrition and reassignments. But Hillsborough's biggest employer still faces incredible legacy costs, from hefty spending on staffers' health care to the upkeep of 238 school facilities. Superintendent Jeff Eakins said in August that the district needed to reduce its staff by hundreds more to bring levels in line with Hillsborough's peer counties across the state. That's essential for shrinking employee costs as a portion of the overall budget for the long term.

Of course, Hillsborough did not create this problem entirely on its own. The Florida Legislature cut state support for public schools so dramatically that Hillsborough received only $19 million in construction money for a seven-year period ending last year. That's barely enough to replace the air conditioning at three schools in a district where half the facilities are more than 50 years old.

But these cutbacks were foreseen across the political spectrum, and other government agencies here and across Florida took actions to insulate themselves against these destructive policies from Tallahassee. The very least the district should have done in recent years was to use this state assault on the public school system to bolster its place as a valued local institution. Instead, board members pointed fingers in every direction except the one that mattered, chasing away a superintendent, rehashing old personal scores and fiddling over major decisions on the public school system's place in the modern era.

The latest complaint against board member Susan Valdes is only part of this larger circus. An anonymous complaint alleges she was involved in closing the district's construction office last year in an effort to prevent staff from addressing problems with contract work performed by Valdes' friends and campaign donors. Valdes has dismissed the allegations as "completely false," and a school spokesman said the district closed the office to save money and did not inform board members until after the fact. The district will conduct an internal investigation and expects a report in as soon as 30 days.

It's important to clear the air, but the investigation should be handled by outside counsel, not the district or the Florida Department of Education. The charges are serious and deserve the attention of an independent party. They especially merit an outside review given allegations in a lawsuit by a former human resources chief that the district retaliated against her for opposing what she described as improper hiring, corruption and acts of intimidation.

Eakins has made progress on the budget, but the culture of the bureaucracy, the immaturity and superficiality on the board and the loss of public confidence in the organization all threaten any effort to line up voter support for any new revenue. Not only has amateur hour taken its toll; it shows no sign of ending. A public training event last month aimed at building respect among board members devolved into an unprofessional trash-talking exchange between board members April Griffin and Tamara Shamburger. It's as if the institution cannot help but work against itself even as it waits for someone to save it.

It's time for Hillsborough's civic leadership to act. Three of the School Board's seven seats are up for election next year. While not an opening for wholesale change, it is an opportunity to raise public expectations, to find strong, new talent for the board and to begin repairing the district's image in the community.

There are many success stories this district can promote, and it could play a leading role in Tampa Bay's growth. Its diverse student population is a microcosm of where the country is headed, and it has a platform to be a pioneer in a world more connected than ever by personal mobility, technology and foreign trade. But school board members and the administration need to rise to the occasion, move urgently address the financial crisis and work together to restore public confidence. At the moment, they do not appear to be up to the challenge.