TAMPA — In the last four years of superintendent MaryEllen Elia's administration, the Hillsborough County School District went on a spending jag, tearing through more than half of its $361 million reserve fund, officials revealed this week.
Left unchecked, the pattern would have resulted in another operating deficit this year — a $75 million hit that would bring the fund down near its legal minimum threshhold.
The situation has surprised Elia's successor, unsettled School Board members and put bonding agencies on alert, which could lead to the district facing higher interest rates when it has to borrow money.
Jeff Eakins, who took over as superintendent after serving as Elia's deputy, says he was caught off guard when he realized the district used $68.5 million in non-recurring funds to meet this year's payroll.
Some examples of Elia's financial mismanagement:
For example: Teachers were given pay raises in the summer after negotiations with their union. School Board members were told how much those raises would cost.
But those were estimates that fell short of the real number because they did not take into account a new pay structure offered under Empowering Effective Teachers, the system Elia initiated in 2009 with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That's because teachers don't decide whether they want to be included in the system until the fall — well after the contract negotiations — and many more opted to be in the system than the district anticipated.
A study is under way to calculate those extra costs, which could run as high as $50 million.
It is clear, Eakins said, that the district, which serves more than 200,000 children, is spending money to extend programs that were launched with temporary funding from foundations.
The Gates grant is one example, as it is in its final year of funding. Expenses anticipated for 2015-16 include $11.3 million for teacher peer evaluators and $6.1 million to pay mentors. Eakins said he will take a close look at these expenditures to see if they are worth sustaining, or if they should be reduced.
The consequences of Elia's mismanagement?
Class sizes will be increased.
The new superintendent doesn't want to do layoffs, but that could be another consequence.
It's pretty clear from the story that Elia hid the mismanagement from the school board:
Some board members said the budgets that were made public were difficult to understand and they did not get clear answers when they asked direct questions of Saunders and Elia.
"I tried to dig for information," said Harris, who ran for her board seat in 2014 and cast the tie-breaking vote to fire Elia. "But unless you are an expert, it's impossible to get a real budget and real figures."
Stuart, who often asked questions about spending, said she was stonewalled, and despite all her questions was as surprised as the others to learn about the spending issue.
"We had no idea. We honestly had no idea," she said. "We never got the full picture."
Elia, who's on her "I Talk Tough" tour of NY State, did not respond to the Tampa Bay Times for a comment either Monday or Tuesday.
Again I ask, why was Elia hired without any public scrutiny?
And let me add, why is Elia not getting any scrutiny from the New York press now?
There was her lack of transparency around the death of a special needs child on a Hillsborough school bus that led to the death of another child later on, her refusal to take responsibility for these incidents and now the news that Hillsborough was one year away from hitting its reserve fund minimum because Elia mismanaged the district finances.
Could there be any more red flags flying that the hiring of MaryEllen Elia was a disaster?
And yet, other than readers of the blogs and folks on the NYSAPE social media threads, who knows about any of this?