Hillsborough school cuts become real as workers get news of jobs ending

Marlene Sokol, Tampa Bay Times
·5 min read

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District notified hundreds of employees this week of job cuts that will affect class schedules, course offerings and decades-long careers.

Dozens of assistant principals will see their positions cut, leaving them with few prospects for the “soft landing” of another job in the school system, said Ray Bonti, executive director of the Hillsborough Association of School Administrators.

Teachers are being directed to a hiring pool that may, or may not, have positions for which they are qualified. In some cases, they will take jobs without the proper certification, agreeing to earn those credentials while on the job.

But no one can say how many will be leave the school district for lack of a suitable placement. Earlier in the week, teachers’ union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins predicted that “several hundred will probably end up in that situation.”

On Friday, she said the union is still working to protect jobs, but added, “We will filing be several grievances in response to the way things are being handled.”

For Jeff Woollard, an economics and government teacher at Jefferson High, it was the second such trip to the hiring pool in two years. As a low-seniority teacher, he also lost his last position at Spoto High.

“I’ve been having a lot of conversations with my principal,” Woollard said. “I’m telling him I really want to be here, I really want to be here. Because I’m a football coach and a teacher here, I’m hopeful and confident that I can come back.”

Mary Hoover, an art teacher at two elementary schools in Plant City, was also headed for the pool. So she started job-hunting and was offered a position in Virginia, where she used to live. Her Hillsborough job was saved at the last minute but, after a similar scare in the fall, she did not want to remain in such an insecure situation. So she took the job in Virginia.

“It’s the most horrible thing to be told, after 23 years as a teacher, that I’m a unit and there’s no place to put me,” Hoover said. “They talk about relationships with kids, but they don’t foster the relationships with us.”

Hillsborough’s leaders, under superintendent Addison Davis, say they are trying to correct a budget imbalance that goes back nearly a decade, caused largely by the district’s past reliance on short-term grants. The grants ran out, but the positions remained.

A study by the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization of large urban districts, found the district was over-staffed relative to like-sized districts by 3,000 positions.

While not disputing the need for reform, critics are taking issue with the timing of the cuts, and the way they are being carried out. Teachers and school-based administrators, who are also being cut, just went through 13 months of distance learning, food distribution and COVID-19 protocols, including contact tracing and heightened mental health needs.

“Our leaders came to schools every day while students, teachers and other staff members were provided the option of working remotely,” says the latest letter from the administrators’ association.

In the letter, the organization took issue with Davis’ plan to save $3.5 million by having 12-month employees take four furlough days this June.

Bonti is also troubled that as many as 52 assistant principals will lose their jobs under a new staffing formula. Many were recruited into their positions because they showed leadership potential. Now, he said, they will not be able to seek classroom positions until after the teachers have their turn.

These are not people who earn $150,000 or $300,000 a year, he said, but usually between $60,000 and $80,000, or less than some teachers.

Bonti and Baxter-Jenkins say the impact of the cuts will be far-reaching. Students will be without specialty classes they looked forward to, or taught by instructors who are not experts in the topic. Class sizes will be larger as the district conforms more tightly to the state-imposed caps. Preparation time will be stretched thin as teachers take on new assignments.

“You’re shortchanging kids because, for teachers, it’s hard enough to differentiate in class with 26 kids with different needs,” Baxter-Jenkins said. “I have not yet heard a teacher or principal say we have more than enough adults on campus.”

As of late Friday, not all School Board members had seen details of the cuts, and the district was preparing to disseminate the information.

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said that “not all schools are being cut. Some are adding positions. This is all based on student enrollment and programmatic needs.”

Arja also said counseling jobs, which were a concern by many, have been restored with the help of federal mental health funding.

Arja said school principals have been involved in the entire cutting process. Through their meetings and appeals, they kept the cuts down to about 1,000, from an early count of 1,600.

But Bonti said morale has dropped among his members.

“Principals are frustrated,” he said. “Principals are scared. Principals feel communication has not been to the level that they can plan well and facilitate some of the things that are being asked of them.”

Ultimately, critics say, the moves could weaken the district’s position as non-government charter schools compete for top student and teaching talent.

“Facebook served me three ads today about charter school hiring,” Baxter-Jenkins said.