Hillsborough Co. school board members say Bill Gates grant put county on path to budget deficit

Hillsborough County

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The Hillsborough County Public School system is in a budget crisis. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has given the school board just days to come up with a financial plan to fund an emergency reserve account.

The state-mandated account is only to be used in case of emergency or disaster. Some school board members estimate the account will be more than $100 million dollars short this year.

Now, some school board members are blaming a 2009 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for putting the county on a path to have a budget shortfall.

“Always remember, we had over staffing from the previous Gates grant so that’s all being cut,” said School Board Chairperson Lynn Gray.

When the grant was announced, the county understood they would receive 100 million dollars if the county put up matching funds. When the grant expired in 2016, the Gates Foundation had only provided 80 million dollars, the county put up 124 million dollars.

At the time the Gates Foundation said the language in the agreement specified the grant would be “up to $100 million”. After further review, the foundation said they found bonuses to teachers didn’t improve the quality of education for students.

Former school board member April Griffin says she tried over and over to get a financial accounting of the funds from the grant.

“There was never, ever a solid plan that came forward around the Gates grant where funding was concerned,” Griffin said.

She says the school superintendent at the time, Mary Ellen Elia withheld vital information about the grant.

“There was never any talk from the administration about what the sustainability of that program was. We were asking those questions and we were never getting the answers to those questions ” Griffin added.

She says a month after former superintendent Elia left her job after being fired, the new school superintendent Jeff Eakins brought board members in individually to explain they were in a budget crisis.

“We were getting ready to have our credit rating lowered,” said Griffin.

She says the board worked hard at the time to cut expenses.

“I know this, when I left in 2018 we had a balanced budget and the highest graduation rates we had in decade,” said Griffin.

Now the current school board finds itself in financial crisis again, but the Hillsborough County Classroom Teachers Association says you can’t blame the Gates Grant for today’s problems.

“We’re six years away from that ending and so if we are still blaming budget problems on something from six years ago, we’re not doing things correctly. We’re now on our second superintendent since the end of that grant and we need to take responsibility for what changes we need to make,” said Executive Director of the Hillsborough County Classroom Teachers Association Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins said.

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

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