HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — On Monday, Hillsborough County School District leaders announced a promising light at the end of the tunnel of ongoing financial issues.
Superintendent Addison Davis said the state is releasing $101M of CARES ACT 2 funding (ESSER funds) to the district, allowing them to maintain a balance of 3 percent and avoid a state takeover of the district's finances.
The Hillsborough County School District is the third-largest school system in the state and the eighth largest in the country. Yet, sweeping financial issues now have district leaders cutting teaching positions and considering closing under-enrolled schools. Hundreds of families are now left wondering if their kids will have the services they need. As part of our Full Circle reporting, ABC Action News is going to parents, teachers, educators, union members and top administrators to find how the district got to this point and answer the question: whose fault is it?
For months, parents have been approaching the school board to speak out against cutting teaching positions.
“The board is telling us a thousand teaching jobs need to be cut. I’m here to challenge that,” said one at a recent 2021 board meeting.
Curtis Hubbard, a teacher, addressed how the cuts impacted his classes as well.
“What I wound up with is 50 kids in my classroom,” Hubbard said in part at the same meeting in public comment.
Other parents have pressed the school board and superintendent about the release of federal dollars that could help with the financial situation.
“We want you to tell us why Tallahassee is withholding funds from the CARES and Recovery Act and why are you not pushing back on them,” one mother said.
Emily Lee, an elementary school teacher in Plant City, has also spoken out at multiple school board meetings against many of the recent cuts and how they were handled
“You either care about the kids and the people wanting to keep the kids in our schools, or you care about the money,” she told the board and superintendent at a recent board meeting.
Lee said she cannot stay silent in the face of the cuts now happening in the Hillsborough County School District.
“There is a lot of fear around just telling the truth about what’s going on and how it’s affecting our students,” Lee told ABC Action News.
Lee said even at the beginning of the school year, most teachers were aware that cuts were coming. However, Lee said they expected to see fewer instructional and support staff positions eliminated, with more cuts from the top down.
“I think that people feel very worried for their students,” Lee said. “We have an overwhelming feeling that we can’t do enough for them and that we don’t have enough people, enough resources.”
Two days prior to the second round of teaching position cuts, on April 8, ABC Action News interviewed Superintendent Addison Davis.
“I’ve had to make some very unpopular decisions related to finances,” Davis said.
Davis has received widespread criticism over the budget cuts, namely for cutting teaching positions and support staff jobs, like counselors.
ABC Action News asked Davis if he understood the extent of the district’s financial issues when he took the position in spring 2020.
“Absolutely not,” Davis said. “You know, I knew, openly, that we had work to do instructionally. I knew that we had the most under-performing schools in the state of Florida. Openly, the financials have been somewhat of a canyon in this work. And we’re just trying to work our way out of it.”
This past fall, Davis eliminated more than 300 positions. Then, in April 2021, he eliminated around 1,000 additional positions. More than 900 of those educators are working to find other positions within the district. But as of May, around 90 of the district’s newest teachers, many who were hired in the 2019-2020 school year and teach physical education, music and the arts, got an email saying their jobs are likely cut altogether. However, that number may drop based on the number of resignations and retirements.
“We’re not cutting these programs at all,” Davis said. “But you may see students going to art, music, and PE three days a week and that may go down to two days a week based on the allocation model.”
Davis said when he arrived, he inherited a financial crisis. When he started, the district had around 3,000 excess positions. He said this is based on state funding models that were not being followed, per the number of students.
“I didn’t change the model,” Davis said. “I’m using the model that’s been historically in place.”
ABC Action News asked Davis whose fault the financial crisis is.
“I can sit and I can point fingers at many people, but it does us no good,” he said. “It's just the situation that we're currently in. So, my job is to address the situation and not kick the can down the road. Because as you kick that can down the road, it becomes heavier.”
While Davis won’t specifically assign blame, a report from The Council of Great City Schools does. It was commissioned by the district under Davis and was released in October 2020.
In it, a list of experienced former superintendents from around the country found “past administrations” failed “to adjust spending for losses in revenue.”
Districts also didn’t adjust staffing levels or find new funding sources as more ran out, the report found. The auditors also found that as the district faced serious financial problems, it started to transfer money from its capital fund to its general fund for day-to-day expenses. In the 2014-2015 school year, Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia’s administration transferred $7M out of the capital fund. Superintendent Jeff Eakins took over the role next.
He maintains his administration worked to stop overstaffing and curb budget issues by enacting measures to cut costs, like stopping courtesy busing. He also maintains he kept the school board and community apprised of budget issues. By the time Eakins retired in the spring of 2020, the report shows the district had transferred out a total of $197M from the capital fund to the general fund to deal with budget shortfalls.
The report goes on to show the district had been forewarned of financial issues in consultant reports as early as 2016. But yet, positions that weren’t in the budget were filled and paid for anyway. The report also found the district had too many duplicate programs, like more than a hundred different initiatives aimed at stopping bullying. It also found there was overspending coupled with a lack of oversight on employee purchasing cards. Additionally, in 2019, the school board approved new raises. But the report shows there was no funding set aside to pay for them.
The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association is working to push back against some of the recent budget cuts.
Rob Kriete, who was a public school teacher for many years, now serves as president of HCTA. He said with so little state funding for public education, districts often get boxed into a corner.
“When we have such a small budget, that leaves a very little room for error when we make a choice in a program or a curriculum,” he said.
That, along with unfunded state mandates, like requiring districts to pay for school security upgrades through the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act has been a problem since before the pandemic.
"Public education in Florida is a landscape of abandoned bandwagons when it comes to meeting the needs of the kids,” Kriete said.
The COVID-19 pandemic created even bigger challenges for the Hillsborough County School District, according to Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, who serves as executive director for HCTA. The federal government has provided more to schools through the three CARES Acts. This is to handle financial fallout from the pandemic.
“The district has had to put out a lot of money that wouldn’t be the norm because of COVID because of safety practices and trying to keep our schools open,” Baxter-Jenkins said.
But in Florida, she said much of that money has not flowed to education agencies.
"I believe the state has got over $200M that they would owe to our district, and they are holding it for whatever reason,” Baxter-Jenkins said.
But Monday, Davis announced the CARES ACT 2 funding, helping the district avoid a state takeover.
That money will be used to help with pandemic expenses the district faced in the last year.
Tuesday, board members were shown a PowerPoint, detailing the two-year corrective action plan that is now being sent to the state.
Now, school board members will have to submit their official financial recovery plan to the state, with a deadline of May 12.
Meanwhile, educators are asking Hillsborough County families to stay invested in the decisions made by local leaders on how this money is spent and state lawmakers and district administrators to listen to the needs of children.
"I feel like people need to understand that this is about the students,” Lee said.