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Joe Henderson: Same old story for Hillsborough School Board

The District faces another shortfall in reserve funds over unapproved expenditures.

About 3 ½ hours into a marathon Hillsborough County School Board meeting Tuesday, there was this bombshell: The District’s reserve fund shrank by about $50 million.

Talk about burying the lead …

And upon learning this news — and, more importantly, how they got here — well, let’s just say there appeared to be plenty of fireworks left from the Fourth of July.

“This Board has been betrayed,” outgoing Board member Cindy Stuart said.

“I’m literally shaking about this,” Board member Stacy Hahn said, her voice rising as she processed what she had heard.

“This Board knew nothing about this until right now. This is un-ac-cept-able,” Board member Steve Cona II said, emphasizing each syllable.

You get the drift.

This went beyond unanticipated COVID-19 expenses.

According to District CFO Gretchen Saunders, former Superintendent Jeff Eakins — who retired earlier this year — spent $25 million more on employee salaries than the $39 million the Board had authorized.

The money went to support 50 so-called Achievement schools, including bonuses to coax veteran teachers to go there.

Then the pandemic forced the District to convert on the fly and provide thousands of computers to facilitate home instruction, and the tab kept increasing.

The minimum teacher salary increased by nearly $2,000 to about $40,000 to keep teachers from fleeing to nearby counties with higher starting pay. And … well, there is a lot of extra expense, even with a $3 billion annual budget.

“We’re always going to come to you with money issues, whether it’s health insurance, instructional subs. It’s never fun. It’s never friendly. You’re going to say, ‘Gretchen, what happened?’” Saunders said.

“Well, we had multiple meetings with the prior superintendent. We gave (Eakins) the big picture. We told him our projections, and decisions were made …”

Yeah, they were.

“I don’t recall anybody, including Superintendent Eakins, asking the Board to approve another $25 million,” Hahn said.

“How do you spend $25 million without this Board’s approval? We’re hearing about this now? I can’t get past that.”

Welcome to Hillsborough County, new Superintendent Addison Davis. Like Eakins before him, he faces a financial mess, not of his own making. Shortly after Eakins took over in 2015 when the Board fired former Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, the District learned reserves had shrunk by about $200 million in expenses Elia authorized.

Eakins spent most of his tenure digging out of that hole.

But now, let’s give the mic to Stuart. She was part of the 4-3 majority vote to fire Elia.

“I am appalled, and I am heart-broken, that I sit here again (with this problem). I’m leaving here in November, and to be leaving here with the same exact thing happening makes me sick to my stomach,” she said.

“It’s probably a good thing that our former Superintendent is not here today because there would probably be a motion on the floor to fire him.”

It’s too soon to tell how the shortfall will impact the upcoming school year, but the reserve fund is at a frighteningly low level.

Usually, that means austerity programs and cuts.

Let’s just say it’s a mess. That’s putting it nicely, and Cona put the cherry on top of an all-too-familiar situation.

“Mr. Superintendent,” he said, “you have to fix this.”

Same as it ever was.

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I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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