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Education

‘Morale Is Awful’: School Leaders Give Poor Grades To Hillsborough Superintendent

screen capture of a woman wearing glasses speaks into a microphone at a school board meeting
SCREENSHOT: Hillsborough County Schools
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School board chair Lynn Gray presented the findings of a survey of more than 500 Hillsborough County school administrators at a special board meeting Friday.

The state Department of Education says federal emergency relief money for schools — amounting to nearly $500 million for Hillsborough County — will not be available until July, and that board members shouldn't count on it to fix its budget crisis.

A survey of more than 500 Hillsborough County school administrators has revealed low morale and 85 percent disapproval rating for superintendent Addison Davis, as the nation's eighth largest school district slashes jobs and struggles to solve a budget deficit amounting to tens of millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, the district’s financial woes intensified, after the Florida Department of Education warned that a plan for budgetary recovery must be submitted by mid-May, or risk a financial takeover by Tallahassee.

“The morale is awful and people are afraid of speaking with him,” said one anonymous commenter in the Hillsborough Association of School Administrators (HASA) survey, which school board members discussed at a special meeting on Friday.

“Trust is non-existent at this time,” said another.

“Fear is the only atmosphere we all know.”

School Board chair Lynn Gray announced the findings about two weeks after around 1,000 Hillsborough school employees were notified their jobs are being cut.

“I waited until Tuesday. And the response then was 85% disapproval. So, in my mind, because we have to by law, by statute, give two days’ notice for a special called board meeting, I had to make the determination and thus we are sitting here today,” Gray said.

A total of 523 school administrators responded to the survey, which said it is designed to “send formative feedback to the superintendent on a variety of issues.”

Poor communication, lack of understanding of administrators’ jobs, and preferential treatment of those in Davis’ inner circle were among the criticisms in the survey.

Davis took on the superintendent’s role in early March, just as the coronavirus was beginning to spread in Florida.

Gray acknowledged that was an unusually stressful time and said, “I don't mean to be putting anyone in front of the bus.”

She said a leadership retreat in late April should offer Davis “an opportunity for growth.”

"We are reminded that decreased school morale will affect the mental and academic welfare of our children," she added.

Superintendent Addison Davis speaks at a board meeting
SCREENSHOT: Hillsborough County Schools
Superintendent Addison Davis says he will preserve arts programs as the districts struggles to make up for a cash crunch.

Davis spoke in his own defense for more than 15 minutes at the meeting, describing how he took the helm of the district as it faced a $100 million budget deficit and an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic. He listed his successes throughout the past year, including delivering 10 million meals to children and distributing tens of thousands of laptops.

“There was no playbook,” Davis said. “There was no research, there was no exemplar of how to take a school district of 220,000 students, 25,000 employees, 240 schools, and push them and help them transition from brick-and-mortar to a number of innovative solutions. It was extremely difficult to do.”

As to the job cuts, Davis said: “Steps I would never take as superintendent have come to a reality.”

When he finished speaking, board member Melissa Snively took him to task for touting his achievements.

“I'm going to say this very respectfully,” Snively said. “I think most people tuned you out about halfway through that speech, and I'll tell you why: because I think people just want you to acknowledge how they feel right now and apologize for the mistakes that you've made, and promise us that you're going to do better.

"And I think that's all you really had to say.”

School board members also discussed what to do about a letter sent Thursday by state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, calling for a financial recovery plan by mid-May to address the $107 million shortage in its cash reserves, or otherwise risk a financial takeover by the state.

"We are actively researching what all this means, and what it would mean for this board if we get to that point, as well as looking at all potential legal opportunities for the board to react to it," said deputy superintendent Michael Kemp.

President Joe Biden in March approved a multi-billion dollar recovery fund for schools nationwide, known as the American Rescue Plan (ARP). School board members often refer to this aid — about $500 million of which due to Hillsborough County — as "CARES 3."

Corcoran said that money will not be available until the fiscal year 2021-22, which starts in July.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor has accused Governor Ron DeSantis of "slow-walking" that money to districts, especially since Hillsborough needs help right now.

But Corcoran indicated that money would not be seen as a solution to Hillsborough County's long-running budget problems.

“If there is a thought to solving this recurring financial issue by using one-time stabilization funds, 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,” he said in his letter.

Board members plan to meet May 4 to discuss the financial recovery plan.

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