Hillsborough Schools dealing with fewer Gates dollars than expected

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April Griffin. WMNF
Hillsborough School Board member April Griffin. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News. 18 July 2012.

The Hillsborough School Board is having a budget workshop Tuesday and it’s trying to figure out how to fill some budget gaps. One issue is that county schools will get much less from a major grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation than expected.

WMNF News spoke with School Board member April Griffin during a break in the School Board workshop while she attended an unrelated event in Tampa. She said the Gates Foundation wanted to know whether teachers perform better when there is a performance pay incentive. The foundation has not released the results, but it seems to have gathered enough information.

“The first I heard about it was last week, that this was an issue. From my understanding they’re doing with all their grantees. That they’ve actually gotten the information back that they needed so they don’t think that it’s necessary to fund any more.”

The Gates grant was supposed to be $100 million over seven years. Griffin says she doesn’t think the program has been a loss for the school district, but Hillsborough has been an experimental subject.

“We’re in the final year of that grant right now and we are probably are going to not get about $20 million of the monies that we were supposed to get. They said that we could still talk. They’re still open to some conversations with us, but we’re looking at some areas to transition some folks in. The mentors we have had such a great success with. That’s probably one of the most successful parts of the Empowering Effective Teachers grant from the Gates Foundation. The evaluators, we’re probably going to cut those down a bit – observations and things like that.”

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Griffin says there have been expenses related to the grant that the school district needed to take up.

“Because what we’re seeing is that as teachers transition to the new pay schedule under the Gates grant there were some costs that we, the Board, were not informed of. We kept asking about the overall financial impact of this grant and we never received that information, as documented in the past Superintendent’s [Mary Ellen Elia] evaluations.”

Hillsborough County School Board Cindy Stuart (District 3)  said the Gates grant and other financial issues are being discussed at Tuesday’s workshop where board members got their first presentation of the budget in detail from the district supervisor and staff.

“…and it went well. It was a very transparent process. There were a lot of questions asked. There was a lot of information that the Board is seeking. We all know, unless you’ve been living under a rock, that we have a fund balance issue right now. So we’re chasing some dollars and that’s OK. I have every confidence in the Superintendent and his staff that we’re going to get through this. But it was a very good meeting and we will continue this afternoon.”

Several years ago it looked like Hillsborough Schools were going to be flush with cash from this Gates grant and now it’s not turning out like that. WMNF asked Stuart why.

“We have our challenges with the Gates grant. We have a lot of things that have been funded by that grant that now we just need to look at how we re-position some of that stuff. We have a lot of mentoring and a lot of evaluations that are going on. A lot of that stuff has been mandated by legislation so we’re looking at everything. We’re not just focusing on one grant. We have many grants in this district that actually fund a lot of different programs. And even things that are funded not by grant dollars. But just an overall 30,000-foot view of return on investment and how things are operating in this district, contract-wise, program-wise. It’s not a fun position to be in, but it’s certainly is a healthy opportunity for this district to take a 30,000-foot view of everything that we’re doing, whether that’s resources or programs or contacts. Long overdue, in my opinion, but very, very healthy and much needed.”

The Hillsborough County School district is also facing questions about an aging and a declining bus fleet. Last week one high-mileage bus went off the road and into a pond with students on board. Even though the driver has been cited for careless driving, the aging school bus fleet again came under scrutiny. Hillsborough School Board member Cindy Stuart says the district will buy new buses soon.

“Absolutely, that money was budgeted last year. We’re actually a little behind in the purchase of our buses. But I anticipate in the very near future here we’re going to be putting new buses on the road. My inclination is there will be 200 new buses purchased – hopefully, cross your fingers – at the next board meeting. That’s my hope. We definitely have an issue in transportation. But again, that’s something that we pushed for – the Board pushed for – an evaluation of that division and we got it. It took us a while to get there so now the Board has to hold staff and Superintendent responsible for making sure that plan gets put in place.”

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