Is federal aid coming for Hillsborough schools? A top official hints yes.

Marlene Sokol, Tampa Bay Times
·2 min read

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County school system this week expects to receive a huge infusion of federal money it can use to avoid a financial takeover by the state, the district’s chief financial officer disclosed at a public meeting Monday.

Romaneir Johnson’s statement came in response to a question from School Board member Nadia Combs, who said many are wondering when the state will free up money from the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as CARES. “That’s the million dollar question,” Combs said, addressing a meeting of the district’s Citizens Advisory Committee. “Maybe you have an update on that, Ms. Johnson?”

Johnson then said, “We should be receiving, of CARES Act II, $100 million. It’s allocated to Hillsborough. We should be receiving that by this Thursday.”

Superintendent Addison Davis said later that it would be premature to count on the money.

“We just haven’t had anything in writing that confirms that,” Davis said. “We have not had any direction formally from the Department of Education. We know they are working diligently to finalize the budget.” But, he said, there is “nothing formal, nothing in writing” about a Thursday payment.

If the payment were to materialize, it would be a huge relief for district leaders who are working against a May 12 deadline to prepare a fiscal recovery plan that will demonstrate the district can live within its means for the remainder of this fiscal year and the next.

The federal relief money is important because, as part of the plan, the district needs to show it will end the budget year with a sufficient reserve. The state requires at least 2 percent of revenues and requires districts to give formal notice if the balance drops below 3 percent.

The consequences, if Hillsborough does not reach 2 percent, include state intervention that could include a forensic audit and use of a financial advisory board.

The federal funding, which is coming in three phases, covers a wide variety of pandemic-related expenses — from cleaning equipment and laptop computers that were required to maintain safe school environments and enable students to learn at home, to instructional programs that will help students make up for lessons they missed when schools were closed.

State officials, however, are insistent that Hillsborough must also end a years-long pattern of depleting its reserves through undisciplined spending.

Davis, Johnson and the School Board will gather Thursday morning for a meeting to discuss the recovery plan.