Joe Henderson: Hillsborough public schools in “dire” financial shape while lawmakers keep up the pressure

in The Bay and the 'Burg by

Meanwhile, back on the home front …

Hillsborough County has the 8th-largest public school district in America, serving about 207,000 students. In addition to being large, it also is diverse; an estimated 64 percent of students are considered minorities.

Many of the district’s buildings are aging and badly in need of refurbishment. For instance, air conditioning breakdowns have been common in many schools. Transportation remains a hot-button issue as the school board struggles to upgrade the fleet of about 900 buses. Many of those are buses are 20 years old.

The U.S. Census Bureau has reported that Tampa had the nation’s fifth-highest population growth in 2016, and it is universally accepted that rapid growth will continue for at least the next 25 years.

That will put an even bigger strain on public schools.

To save money, the board voted in December to eliminate so-called “courtesy busing” for students living within two miles of their school. It affected nearly 10,000 students. It was not a popular decision.

All of that was a prelude to Tuesday’s contentious school board meeting, where the Tampa Bay Times reported member April Griffin described the district’s financial condition as “very dire.”

While lawmakers in Tallahassee plan to divert $200 million from public schools to their BFFs in the form of private charter schools, Griffin noted in the meeting that the district’s per-student funding is at 2007 levels.

The district has been working since September on a plan to change the start and closing time for all of its schools. Currently, an estimated 10,000 students arrive late each day because buses don’t have enough time to complete their runs because the start times for elementary, middle and high schools run too close together. That will change in 2018.

The real motivation, though, was to save money. A consultant estimated that staggering the times a little more will save $2.5 million a year because the district will need fewer buses and drivers.

With an overall budget of about $3 billion annually, $2.5 million is barely a spit in the bucket. The bigger story is that it illustrates how little leeway the board has with its finances.

The consultant advised eliminating many teaching and support positions. Some of that has been done, but the consultant said that more cuts have to come. That led to a telling comment by board member Cindy Stuart, who suggested in the meeting that maybe it was time to ignore state class-size requirements and just pay a fine.

That’s what it’s coming to: fewer teachers, larger classes, and shrinking budgets – while charter schools, which often have direct ties to the lawmakers setting the rules, get the benefit.

It flies in the face of logic for the state to take this course while its public schools are in this situation. Then again, what does logic have to do with any of this?

I think we know that answer.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.