Education commissioner Richard Corcoran wants a recovery plan within 20 days.
Tampa Bay Times | by Marlene Sokol and Jeffrey S. Solochek | April 22, 2021
TAMPA — Weeks after the Hillsborough County School District cut more than 1,000 jobs from its workforce, the Florida Department of Education is warning that it might place the system in financial receivership.
Under that scenario the state would assume control of finances in the nation’s seventh-largest school district. The highly unusual step would include a forensic audit of all accounts and records and appointment of a financial emergency board.
“Make no mistake about it,” Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran wrote in a letter Thursday to the School Board and superintendent Addison Davis. “If your board neither possesses the will nor the ability to develop an appropriate plan that will improve your fund balance to meet requirements outlined in statute, I will be forced to utilize the totality of the powers delegated to me by the Legislature and State Constitution to take emergency action.”
Corcoran requested a detailed financial recovery plan within 20 days.
State law requires school districts to maintain a reserve that is equivalent to 2 percent of anticipated revenues. District leaders have warned for months that, absent deep cuts in spending or a new source of revenue, they would run out of money in June.
A large cash infusion is anticipated under the federal government’s COVID-19 relief plan. But that money flows through the state. According to Corcoran’s letter, the Legislature will not make the federal money available until the 2021-22 fiscal year, “which could be too late to prevent the immediate risks you are facing.”
What’s more, Corcoran wrote, “I strongly encourage you to remember that fixing a long-term problem by using a short-term resolution will not get the district on solid ground.”
Corcoran recounted the recent history of the district’s finances, including the discovery in 2015 that it had lost $200 million after it shifted to a new teacher payment plan.
By the district’s own admission, he wrote, a leading driver of its operational deficit was “longstanding overstaffing by a few thousand employees.”
More recently, he wrote, the finance staff alerted his agency that Hillsborough anticipated a negative balance of $107 million as of June 30.
Already this school year, the district had to take out a tax anticipation note, or bridge loan, to meet payroll.
In his letter, Corcoran wrote that he has “grave concerns regarding sometimes chaotic local discussions and actions” in Hillsborough. He did not elaborate, leaving it unclear if he was referring to public discussions about Davis’ future.
Complaints about Davis and the team he recruited from his last post in Clay County have reached a fever pitch ever since more than 1,000 positions were cut districtwide. Parents and teachers have inundated School Board members with calls and emails. Social media sites have cropped up along with an online petition demanding Davis’ resignation.
More recently, in what Davis acknowledged as a breakdown in district process, close to 100 teachers received word of their dismissal in a batch email on a Friday afternoon.
Davis and his team have maintained all along that they inherited Hillsborough’s financial mess when they arrived in early 2020.
The letter from Corcoran, potentially, supports that position.
At a retreat earlier this week, School Board members discussed their own dissatisfaction with Davis, focusing mostly on a communication style that has created uncertainty and confusion among long-serving employees.
They agreed to meet next on Tuesday to draw up a professional development plan that will specify their expectations for Davis.
Then, in a twist, Chairwoman Lynn Gray scheduled an emergency board meeting for Friday morning to share information with board members that pertains to Davis’ leadership. She did not specify what that information is.
The meeting will begin at 10:30 a.m. in the board auditorium at 900 E Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa.
Image: Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Florida Channel