Florida education commissioner threatens to take over Hillsborough schools due to ‘financial crisis’

Hillsborough County

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – In a letter sent to the Hillsborough County School Board on Thursday, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told school leaders that finances have reached “a point of crisis” and threatened to take over the school district.

“The district’s lack of attention to this issue since 2015 has already created a disruption with your workforce, and your lack of comprehensive and timely action at present threatens the basic delivery of educational services to the Hillsborough’s students,” Commissioner Corcoran wrote to School Board Chair Lynn Gray.

The letter was copied to other board members and to Superintendent Addison Davis, who recently had his leadership questioned over teacher layoffs. Nearly 100 teachers received notice this weekend that they will no longer have a job in the district next year.

Corcoran wrote that the board’s “support of Superintendent Davis and your collective ownership of these difficult, but necessary, decisions is essential” to not interrupt the education of students. He added that the Department of Education wants to work with the district to avoid “drastic actions,” like a state takeover.

“Should you fail to meet the responsibilities outlined in law, I will act swiftly and decisively to utilize the totality of the powers available under the law to ensure that the education of Hillsborough County’s students goes uninterrupted,” he said.

Hillsborough county parent Damaris Allen says she worries a state takeover of the finances for the nation’s seventh largest district would amount to government overreach from Tallahassee.

“Our school board members are our locally elected officials and I really believe in local control,” she said.

Corcoran adds he has serious concerns that the district could enter into “what amounts to a financial receivership.”

“I have grave concerns regarding sometimes chaotic local discussions and actions that, left to their own devices, could expedite this outcome,” he said.

According to Corcoran, the law requires school districts to maintain a “positive fund balance of at least 2% for those funds that are not restricted, committed or nonspendable to avoid the potential of having a financial emergency.” Corcoran wrote in his letter that Hillsborough’s fund balance does not meet that requirement.

“In fact, as of December 2020, the District’s finance staff alerted us that the assigned and unassigned balance was projected to be negative $107 million as of June 30, 2021,” he said.

The education commissioner added that the district’s “overspending” is clearly not sustainable.

“As far back as 2015, the District’s main reserve account dropped by $200 million. By Hillsborough County Public Schools’ own very public admissions, a leading driver of the District’s financial concerns is Hillsborough’s long-standing overstaffing by a few thousand employees,” Corcoran said. “This is evidence when comparing Hillsborough to other Florida school districts.”

Former Hillsborough County School Board member Tamara Shamburger told 8 on your side the timing of the commissioner’s letter does not surprise her.

“It’s not ironic that with this pressure and potential termination of his contract that now the state wants to step in and threaten to take over this is nothing more than a bully tactic,” Shamburger said.

Superintendent Davis released a statement to News Channel 8 following the release of the letter:

“For the last nine months, I have shared publicly the critical state of the financial picture for HCPS. My leadership team has identified and implemented strategies that have helped to mitigate this crisis through staffing allocation cuts and other measures. These decisions have not been easy and I understand the community’s frustration and angst. We have done everything to minimize the impact on individuals, but I know that they have affected our teachers, students, families, and school-based administrators. All of this has been necessary to avoid a state takeover, and I look forward to working with the Board in the weeks and months ahead as we continue to improve and work in the best interest of our primary stakeholders – the students.”

Superintendent Addison Davis

According to the letter, Corcoran expects a detailed plan within 20 days.

Full letter from Commissioner Corcoran:

The Hillsborough County School Board will hold a special called School Board meeting on Friday, April 23, at 10:30 a.m.

Hillsborough County School Board Chair Lynn Gray tells 8 On Your Side the Special Called Board Meeting will include a discussion of the FLDOE letter from Commissioner Corcoran and the state’s requested financial plan from the district. Board members will request updated, routine public finance meetings so we are apprising not only state leaders but also the public and employees regarding the district’s financial situation each week.

Documents that will be released at the meeting will be shared with board members, the Superintendent, and the public and will reveal much-needed continuous improvement regarding a negative school culture and the effects on our teachers, staff, and administration.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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