The Incredible Shrinking Reserve Fund Of Hillsborough School District
August 10, 2015

This is one of the things that reporters like me used to keep track of. Most papers don't have enough staff to send reporters to cover these things anymore, which is why stories like this appear, seemingly out of nowhere:

TAMPA — It was right there in plain sight. In the budget the Hillsborough County School Board approved every year. In monthly financial statements. In state audits, all online.

The reserve fund in 2012: $298 million. In 2013: $269 million. In 2014: $229 million. In 2015: $152 million.

Yet somehow, the fact that tens of millions of dollars were leaving the fund each year escaped the notice of Hillsborough's incoming superintendent and seven elected board members who provide oversight.

Now district leaders are scrambling to cut costs to avoid what could otherwise be a $75 million hit in the coming school year.

Friends and foes of MaryEllen Elia, the superintendent fired in January, are back in their warring camps. The news has hit as two board members who voted to fire Elia — Susan Valdes and Cindy Stuart — face re-election. New York bond rating firms that hold sway over the district's borrowing costs are on high alert.

So who dropped the ball?

Experts around the state say both sides could have done a better job.

"The board is responsible for the budget and all the numbers that are in the budget," said Olga Swinson, chief finance officer for Pasco County schools.

"You need to know what your district is on the hook for," agreed Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

But Messina and others were also surprised Elia and her staff did not spell out for the board what the fund balance — as the reserve is commonly called — looked like year to year.

"Typically there's a fund balance tracking mechanism of some sort," Messina said.

Linda Lerner, a longtime Pinellas County School Board member, said it's unheard of in her district for fund balances to change under the radar.

"We've had several superintendents," she said. "And our fund balance has always been highlighted by every superintendent. Always."

Elia, now New York's commissioner of education, issued a statement Friday defending her record and blaming her critics on the board for canceling meetings and failing to understand district finances.

"Their lack of accountability is astounding," she said.

So before you laugh and shake your head: What's going on with your school district?

The districts I covered always had citizen gadflies, from both sides of the political divide. Yeah, they were a pain in the ass because they made the meetings run long, but they served a useful purpose. They made the board members aware that not only were taxpayers watching, they were also checking the math.

The general public only showed up when there was a controversy - or if taxes were going up.

There was this one homeschooled family that used to show up for every school board meeting. They never said a word in the public comment portion, but they were always there. I asked the mom once why they came. She said it was part of being a citizen, and an important thing for their children to learn.

When was the last time you went to a public meeting?

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