Hillsborough officials mull tough budget cuts

05/10/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Today Tampa and Hillsborough officials held a local joint meeting to get the latest on issues impacting schools and local government. The massive cuts in the state budget appeared to be on everyone’s minds. Hillsborough County School Board Member Jack Lamb, for example, joked that the $100 million in cuts to county schools are practically unconstitutional.

"They are very cognizant of Article 9 of the Constitution which means that the paramount duty of the legislature is to provide quality, resources for quality public education, they just don't read it. We put that on all of our agendas to remind the public what the role of the legislature is."

Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia said the question of where to cut is a big concern. She said the district doesn’t want them to impact classrooms, and will do nearly anything to avoid layoffs like those in Pinellas County, which recently announced it wouldn’t renew the contracts for first and second year teachers.

"Because we are very concerned, as you're well aware we're the largest employer in the state or in the county, we have over 27,000 employees and if there's a mass layoff in any category it affects all of us in this community."

One provision of the state budget axes pension plans, and makes public employees, including teachers, pay three percent of their salaries into their own retirements. Elia said this may help close the gap in state funding for Hillsborough Schools.

"Because we will have a reduction in our costs for FRS and so it's roughly the equivalent of what our employees will be paying so that's how we're going to cover our $100 million."

Some school officials supported the softening of state constitutional amendment limiting class sizes. A constitutional amendment on last year’s ballot would have done this, but it didn’t get the required 60 percent of the vote. Elia said the legislature found another way to do away with some class size limits, which only apply to course considered part of the core curriculum – that is, reduce the number of courses that are considered core curriculum.

"We've got some relief from class size amendment and the lawmakers, in one of the bills that was passed, changed the definition of core classes. I spoke to this group a few months ago about the issues relating to class size amendment and the cost of that."

Despite all the budget mayhem schools face, Elia said there’s a bright spot – writing FCAT scores are in, and Hillsborough Schools have done exceedingly well.

"Our middle school students have the highest writing scores of all the states large districts and the district's in the Tampa Bay area and our high schools did very, very well as well."

She said 99 percent of students at Sulphur Springs Elementary scored four or higher. She attributes this to countywide education and teacher evaluation reform funded by a $100 million Gates Foundation grant – something no other Florida county has. Hillsborough School Board member April Griffin said it’s made for a more holistic educational environment.

"We open the school up on Saturday mornings for tutoring sessions with the kids and the parents are coming in and volunteering at the school and we're all offering them through, again, partnerships, free breakfasts, those types of things so it is a really holistic approach to the entire community and that approach is going to extend out to the feeder schools that those children at Sulphur Springs Elementary are going to."

Meanwhile, Hillsborough County government officials had less-than-encouraging news. County Administrator Mike Merrill said the county faces a nine million dollar shortfall. That’s less than the $24 million initially expected, but put into context, it still makes for a grim picture.

"Put that in the context over the last few years, this brings us to over $300 million in property tax losses due to the things we all know: the economy and housing downturn. I guess the good news is we've brought the $23 million down to $9 million so we're creeping up on it. I guess the bad news is that we've picked most of the low hanging fruit and the last $9 million is going to be the toughest."

Merrill said that means the county will soon be making more very uncomfortable decisions.

"We are going to have, again, some significant layoffs and that's because as we start to shrink the back office and support functions, 85 per cent of our budget, 90 per cent is people. When you're at that point and you're following $300 million dollars of past revenue losses that's really the only place to look."

The county, city and economic leaders meet every quarter at the county center to talk shop on issues impacting the county – and the Tampa Bay area – as a whole. Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce chair Chuck Sykes said a chamber caucus that will explore funding options for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium is having its first meeting is today. He stressed that the group is nowhere close to being ready to talk about location.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the Hillsborough County Schools

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