Hillsborough School district continues to chip away at budget crisis

·3 min read

TAMPA — It will be five more days before the Hillsborough County School Board can vote on a plan to keep the school district out of state receivership.

There was no arrival of $100 million from the state on Thursday, as was discussed earlier in the week. And, despite nonstop calculations and cost-cutting measures, the district is still $10 million away from the $65 million it will need to satisfy the state’s requirement for a 2 percent reserve.

Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran has demanded a plan by May 11 that will demonstrate the district can balance its operating budget this year and in the year to come.

For two hours Thursday, the seven board members tackled a wide variety of topics related to the crisis.

Some insisted district leaders are too conservative in their predictions about how many children will return to schools after summer, and how rising real estate prices will affect tax collections. Both questions affect the bottom line, as they translate into revenues.

Board members, representing constituents who are angry because of staffing cuts at the schools, asked about furlough days for top management. They second-guessed information they were given about the district’s efficiency consultant, and whether that firm could provide the needed money through an advance on savings.

Others, reflecting divergent philosophies on the board, said the district has struggled for nearly a decade, despite multiple audits and efficiency studies. “We have all these audits and we keep coming back in the same boat,” said board member Henry “Shake” Washington. Member Karen Perez called for a forensic audit, the kind that is often used to uncover wrongdoing.

Board member Melissa Snively spoke at length about decisions and practices that contributed to the deficit — including grant-funded programs that continued after the grants ran out and under-enrolled schools that the district has not moved to close or combine. “We didn’t get here in one year,” she said.

Board member Stacy Hahn objected to a suggestion that the community be asked for donations. She recalled the sales tax referendum of 2018 for capital purchases, and how the board promised it would be a careful steward of tax dollars. ”I can’t believe that they would not laugh in our face,” she said.

To that, board member Jessica Vaughn said the district already is making painful cuts. Parents complain publicly about programs and services that their children are losing, she said. “Why don’t other counties have this problem? Because the community has come through and decided that they want to prioritize traditional public education and found a way to fund it.”

Absent was any mention of chief financial officer Romaneir Johnson’s statement on Monday that the state this week would free up $100 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds. At one point, superintendent Addison Davis said Corcoran will accept two recovery plans: one that assumes the use of federal relief funds and one that does not.

When questioned after the meeting, Johnson said there was never assurance of that payment in writing. She also said that, while the money has not yet been made available, “it should be received by June 30.”

Davis, Johnson and deputy superintendent Michael Kemp said the numbers and calculations change frequently as they discover new areas of saving and reclassifying expenses. Months ago, they were projecting a reserve balance of minus-$32 million at the end of June. That projection has since been revised to $31 million, Kemp said. “That’s a $63 million swing.”

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