HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Hillsborough County School Board members received the latest results Tuesday of an ongoing $818,000 consultant study known as the “Gibson Report.” The report tells board members how to stop wasting millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.
The study identifies about $99 million in possible cost savings and provides a blueprint for climbing out of a multi-million dollar annual operating deficit.
The cost of the study seems staggering to some teachers who struggle through the day without functioning air conditioners in schools. The schools need basic maintenance, but consultants insist their advice is worth every bit of the $818,000 price tag.
“It’s a lot of work and we look at a lot of data,” company President Greg Gibson said.
Jeff Eakins has been wrestling with money problems since he took over control as the Hillsborough County School District’s superintendent last year.
“Mr. Eakins, when you first became superintendent you inherited a mess,” Board Member Susan Valdes said at a workshop Tuesday. “We knew it was a mess. We just did not know to what degree the mess was.”
The recommendations proposed by the Gibson Consulting Group touch on everything from time clocks to teachers and a new staffing model for the district’s custodians. Hillsborough’s schools have about $1.7 billion to spend this year, according to the efficiency experts. Last year the school district had an operating deficit of $13.4 million.
Taming that deficit could be tough because there is a massive backlog of maintenance issues, the school bus system is undergoing a renewal of inventory and teacher salaries have increased substantially due to the now-defunct support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But administrators now believe they have just the blueprint they need to turn things around.
“In just the initial phase of the recommendations we’ve already recouped the cost of the consultant and then some,” Eakins said. “So were going to continue to move forward with the recommendations.”
Among other things, the consultants are recommending the district adjusts teacher/student ratios by school rather than individual classrooms to comply with state law. They expect that change alone will account for a savings of $66 million. They also recommend cutting “courtesy” busing for students who live closer than two miles to schools, reducing maintenance costs to 28 percent below the state average and spending more on preventive maintenance.
The efficiency experts credited Eakins and the school board for developing a “chief of staff” administrative model and spending only 1.5 percent of the district’s budget on headquarters staff, which is less than other large school districts in Florida. Eakins insists his headquarters staff has about two dozen fewer workers than last year when he took control.
Under questioning by one board member, Eakins would not commit to a timetable for balancing the budget. He later told 8 On Your Side the financial picture would become more clear in the spring.
Eakins also would not commit to 8 On Your Side about when all Hillsborough classrooms would have functional air conditioners, which is a recurring complaint by teachers. Consultants counted 25,000 work orders for faulty A/C and, in some cases, the backlog of repairs stretches on for months.
“Our techs are out there every single day,” Eakins told 8 On Your Side. Maybe so, but the problem is far from solved, according to Classroom Teachers Association Executive Director Stephanie Baxter Jenkins. “Three quarters of our schools have air conditioning problems,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said with the current focus on leaning out the district budget, she worries the needs of teachers and students are getting lost in the conversation.
“I’ve heard no discussion of efficiencies that actually make the life of a classroom teacher more smooth, better allowing them to spend their time actually teaching children,” Jenkins said. “It’s (the school district) not here to make a profit; it’s here to education children.”