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How did Hillsborough County Public Schools end up in their dire financial situation?

Posted at 4:42 PM, Apr 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-23 18:17:24-04

TAMPA, Fla. — In an open letter Thursday, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said Hillsborough County Schools’ finances are at a “point of crisis” and he would take emergency action if the situation doesn’t change.

Now a big question on the top of minds is "how did Hillsborough County Public Schools get into this situation, and who’s to blame?”

Hillsborough County Public Schools is the eighth largest school district in the United States and the third-largest district in the state of Florida. In an audit requested by newly-elected Superintendent Addison Davis last year, findings revealed the district was warned about the dire financial situation back in 2016.

That audit was conducted by an outside group, the Council of the Great City Schools, and it came with recommendations to get the district back on track and helps piece together just how Hillsborough County Public Schools ended up with an over $100 million deficit.

“It’s the largest deficit that any superintendent in the state of Florida has ever had to address,” said Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Addison Davis, during an interview on April 8th, before any teacher cuts were officially announced.

When asked if Superintendent Davis was aware of just how dire the financial situation was before he was elected to his position, he responded: “Absolutely not, you know, I knew openly that we had work to do. Instructionally, I knew that we had the most underperforming schools in the state of Florida, and I gravitate toward that. This is what I do, I’m an instructional leader, I love it. And that was a challenge I’m still excited to be able to address once we get through the pandemic, but openly the financials have been somewhat of a canyon in this work, and we’re just trying to work our way out of it,” said Superintendent Davis.

Shortly after that interview, the first teacher cuts and reassignments came.

“My heart just sunk. I’m like, ‘what is happening right now,’ said Cece Gaddy, a physical education teacher for Hillsborough County Schools.

Gaddy is currently working to update her resume, unsure of what the future holds for her within the district.

“It is very hard. Especially when the kids are asking, ‘Coach Gaddy, I can’t wait to have your class next year, am I gonna have you as a teacher next year!’ you know, what am I supposed to say, like ‘hey, by the way, the county doesn’t want me here because they can’t afford me,” said Gaddy.

It’s a situation dozens of others are facing as the district works to make up the shortfall.

But the financial crisis did not happen overnight.

Digging through the October 2020 audit, it outlined structural imbalances from past administrations; things it says the district had been forewarned of back in 2016.

Things like:

  • Revenue losses due to enrollment declines (resulting from the expansion of charter schools, demographics shifts, and the impact of COVID) have not been offset by related reductions in school staffing."
  • Past leadership did not adjust staffing levels or find new funding sources when grant funds expired or other special funding sources had dissipated. 4
  • The matrix staffing model, using existing state staffing norms and current student FTE data (noted above), has identified 3,000 excess positions.
  • Expenditure increases from salary raises have not been tied to identified ongoing sources of revenue (e.g., the School Board approved salary increases in the fall of 2019).
  • HCPS has backfilled revenue declines and expenditure increases by transferring onetime resources from Capital Funds to the General Fund and then consuming the General Fund balance. To illustrate
    • During the past six years, the district made the following transfers from the Capital Fund to its General Fund to backfill budgetary shortfalls totaling $197.0 million.

But the audit also uncovered that the district has “a strong new leadership team and is on a trajectory to achieve sustained financial stability.”

However, not everybody agrees with the new leadership's plan.

“We’re at a particular point in this year where, I’ve already cut district administration, as soon as I got in, close to 100 positions. In September and October, I cut over 600 positions at that particular time. We’re in the process now of, I cut district budget, I cut overtime, we’re looking at surplus property. Myself and my cabinet and administrators are taking furlough days to help us financially,” said Superintendent Davis.

Tough decisions that will likely lead to more cuts in the months ahead.

The district has implemented what they call a “soft-landing” approach, where they’ll be eliminating positions in three stages:

  1. one-third in the current school year,
  2. one-third in the first semester of FY 2021-2022, and
  3. one-third in the second semester of FY2021-2022.

The audit says the plan “relies heavily on the elimination of vacant positions, natural attrition, and the reassignment of qualified staff.”