HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — As the seventh-largest school district in the country, many eyes are on Hillsborough County Public Schools as it tries to navigate an already tight budget through the demands and uncertainties associated with the global pandemic.
The Hillsborough County superintendent says the decision to reassign some teachers is meant to help balance the budget. Last week, the district announced more than 400 positions wouldn't be filled this year, meaning some teachers will be transferred to other district positions and about 60 people will be let go.
Superintendent Addison Davis on Tuesday explained schools countywide are facing challenges not unique to the district given concerns over the coronavirus, yet it remains priority No. 1 to deliver a "world-class" education to students.
Part of that goal, Davis explained, is making the district desirable to attract and retain educators. He announced a tentative agreement, once ratified by the teachers union, that would raise the starting base pay from $40,000 to $46,900.
This is part of Gov. Ron DeSantis' announcement last year to increase salaries and distribute $500 million to public school teachers across the state. Hillsborough County has been given $38 million as part of this process and is separate from the ongoing budget difficulties, Davis said.
But despite the positive news on the salary front, Davis stressed challenges remain and it does not mean an end to cuts.
While the pressures of the pandemic contribute to some of the deficit, problems arose even before the pandemic.
How did we get here?
It's no secret that money isn't flowing in the public education sector. School districts across the state are constantly trying to balance budgets and find ways to stay afloat.
A big part of their budget comes from student enrollment. The state gives each school district money based on their projected attendance numbers. If a district overestimates enrollment, they have to pay that money back to the state.
All mandates, no money
Hillsborough School Board Member Tamara Shamburger said Tallahassee is part of the problem. She says, over the years, the Florida Department of Education will be quick to make mandates without a concrete funding plan.
For example, according to Shamburger, the Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act cost Hillsborough $16 million to implement. The state only gave them $6 million.
The perfect storm
The coronavirus pandemic has only added more uncertainty regarding student enrollment and more demands from a safety standpoint. In the state of Florida, funding reflects attendance.
Districts make an educated guess every year as to what their enrollment will be and the state hands out funds based on that number. Due to the coronavirus, Hillsborough County has lost about 7,000 students.
Transfers and cuts
Now, during an unprecedented school year with more change and anxiety than teachers and families could have imagined, the district could be looking at more change.
On Tuesday morning, teachers and families gathered outside Pierce Middle School in protest of the district's plans to transfer teachers and possibly cut staff members.
"I don’t think it’s the right move to do particularly in the middle of the pandemic, particularly in the middle of a school year. I think what’s not being recognized are the students that are going to be impacted, the families of our community are going to be impacted the most," said Wesley Mejia, a teacher at Pierce Middle School who is not personally impacted by the potential cuts.
In a year with so many changes from COVID-19, parents also worry about the quality of teaching.
"My wife and I are concerned about how these teacher changes will affect classes and advanced learning programs. They are already having a hard time with it right now and they will be losing another teacher," parent Gordy Horvath said.
Davis said he recognized the announced salary increases come amid the difficult budget situations ahead. He and other school leaders will pour over ways to cut payroll expenses, non-instructional areas like vendor contracts and limited in- and out-of-county travel.
Hiring freezes will be done at the administration level, as well, Davis said.
Not on the chopping block, Davis said, are programs such as art and physical education -- they're "very important" to him, the board and others.
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