Former Hillsborough school chief Jeff Eakins seeks to clear his name

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Responding to a School Board uproar over finances, he writes a letter showing he did not miscalculate payroll costs.

Tampa Bay Times | by Marlene Sokol | July 29, 2020

TAMPA — Former Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins did not negotiate away the district’s reserves when he authorized raises for employees last year.

Instead, contrary to statements at a recent School Board meeting, Eakins predicted with considerable accuracy how much money the district would spend in payroll in his final year on the job. He even under-spent that amount by $2 million.

The retired leader offered these facts, along with documentation, in a lengthy letter to School Board members that was deeply personal in places. He also recounted his reaction when he heard board members were attacking his record.

“As you can imagine, I did not sleep that night,” Eakins wrote. He told the Tampa Bay Times that, while his integrity matters to him after a 31-year career, he also wants to protect the district’s reputation.

In a meeting July 7, board members used words such as “disgusted” and “betrayed” as they reacted to news that the district faced new financial challenges. Some suggested that if Eakins had not retired, he might now be fired.

Based on a quick review of the year-end numbers, chief financial officer Gretchen Saunders and first-year superintendent Addison Davis told the board that day they were anticipating a $50 million operating deficit. Half of it appeared to have come from a miscalculation in the cost of negotiated pay raises.

Board members lashed out, in part because they had been in the same spot five years earlier. Eakins’ predecessor, MaryEllen Elia, presided over a teaching reform experiment that also caused payroll costs to balloon. The reserve — which school officials call their “fund balance” — shrank by more than $200 million, which alarmed the investment community.

But since July 7, the story has changed.

On Tuesday, Saunders said she was mistaken in her initial analysis. She said the ultimate cost of pay increases was $48 million instead of the $38 million that the board had approved. That happened for a number of reasons, including the fact that the district hired about 500 additional employees.

But most of the deficit came from other causes: cutbacks in revenues totaling $34 million, and increased expenses including the need to spend $6.7 million on student laptops during the spring COVID-19 shut-down.

The district anticipates it will receive more than $50 million in federal relief funds that will replenish the reserves.

In his letter, dated July 13, Eakins explained much of the same.

Back in September, he wrote, when submitting the budget for board approval, “we were anticipating an increase in salaries and benefits of close to $50 million dollars.”

Employee benefits were getting more expensive. Schools needed more security officers. Higher teacher bonuses were planned for the state’s Best and Brightest program.

And so, in his budget, Eakins projected $1.421 billion in total salaries and benefits. The district wound up spending $1.419 billion, he wrote — almost $2 million less than he had budgeted.

“If a line item is under budget, it cannot be the cause of a fund balance reduction,” he explained.

Eakins added that the coronavirus pandemic “has created a significant loss in revenue collections which also will negatively impact the final fund balance.” One example, which Saunders used on Tuesday, was that after the schools closed in March, they stopped collecting payments for school programs, such as after-hours child care. That, alone, was almost a $5 million hit.

In a text to the Times on Tuesday, Eakins also rebutted remarks by board members that the district is over-staffed, saying his administration reduced employee positions significantly during his five years in charge.

Rather than creating new jobs over the past year, Eakins said, he was working to fill vacancies and give students certified teachers instead of long-term substitutes, especially in communities with high needs. “That was factored into the projection that the board approved at the September budget hearing,” he said.

He also noted that the reserves exist for emergencies, that the pandemic is clearly an emergency, and the district was correct in spending the money even as revenues fell.

Eakins wrote in his letter that he did not watch the webcast of the July 7 meeting. But after serving the district for 31 years, including five as superintendent, he said he was concerned about his reputation after some of the board members’ remarks.

“The events of last Tuesday have certainly shaken me, my wife, my parents, former staff members and friends, many of whom have reached out to provide me their support,” Eakins wrote.

He ended on an upbeat note.

“So, as we move forward may we all remember the grace we have been shown and seek opportunities to show others the same,” Eakins wrote. “I wish you the best as you move forward during these very challenging times.”

Photo: Times 2015