As a member of the Tampa Bay community, you understand the value of connecting history with present day issues. Similarly, as a teacher, I taught my students the value of learning all sides of our past to improve what happens to us in the future. And I carry this same commitment to you as your Superintendent.
By now, you probably heard about the financial struggles plaguing Hillsborough County Public Schools. But, how did we get here? The best way to answer that question starts with some background and facts.
– HCPS owes $1 Billion in debt service
– HCPS needs $1 Billion for deferred maintenance on buildings
– HCPS needs $1 Billion to accommodate future growth
Even though each Billion deals with different parts of the budget, all three connect to our past in a very unique way.
In the 1990’s, Florida experienced historic growth. Between 1995 and 2009, HCPS built 68 schools to keep up with the massive increases in student enrollment. Like most families and businesses, HCPS borrowed the money to build schools. Neither the state of Florida nor the federal government provided funds to support growth. In other words, the citizens of Hillsborough County shouldered the burden of this debt.
Then in 2002, the citizens of Florida passed the Class Size Reduction Amendment. I was a principal in South County when class size reduction passed. My school’s capacity dramatically decreased overnight from 1000 students down to only 700. Suddenly, HCPS needed more teachers, more classrooms, and more schools. Again, the burden fell locally on our community to meet these mandates.
But how did we accumulate $1 billion in deferred maintenance? We built incredible schools during that 15-year growth period. But, just like our homes, schools age over time. Our air conditioners and roofs lasted 15 to 20 years and now many of them must be replaced. Did you know that just one high school HVAC unit costs at least $12 million to replace? Remember, we built 68 schools in a short period of time, and although they have aged remarkably well, things do break after 20 years and must be fixed or replaced. Unfortunately, during this same period, the state of Florida decreased the capital funding it provided traditional public schools.
The last “B” is obvious to anyone who lives in our community. Hillsborough County is growing again at record pace, and HCPS needs to build more schools to keep up with this growth. Once again, our community will bear the burden of these costs as we address these issues locally.
So, when you put these “3 B’s” together, it brings clarity to a very difficult financial situation. But, I believe we can work together to find real solutions. For example, in the past local school boards could levy, by simple majority vote, a greater millage amount for capital purposes. Additionally, school boards had the authority to determine how to use local capital outlay millage revenue. But recent legislation removed our school board’s autonomy and decreased millage. This type of legislation stressed your local school budget. What’s the solution? Restore the authority back to our local community.
Other solutions include right-sizing our organization while harnessing the power of local businesses and stakeholders. That means offering students more professional industry certifications. It also means paying for students to take college level coursework in partnership with local community colleges and universities. We’re doing all of these things and I believe paying for these certifications and courses is a smart investment by our community so students graduate from school debt-free and ready to launch a career right here in Tampa Bay.
Despite some financial setbacks, I remain extremely optimistic about our school district’s future. I believe we can work together to turn the tide in order to make the very best decisions for our children.
Jeff Eakins, Superintendent
Hillsborough County Public Schools