TAMPA — As school officials in Hillsborough County move forward to finalize a $3 billion budget, it's impossible to say how much Hurricane Irma will end up costing them — or how soon they'll get money back from the federal government.
Expenses include repairs that must be made to the schools, wages for employees who spent the weekend working at shelters, fuel, supplies and more than 34,000 meals.
"Yes, we probably have to up-front some of that because of the need,'' superintendent Jeff Eakins said Monday.
Principals were advised that meetings have begun with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with no timetable yet to complete the process.
Despite those uncertainties, a public hearing on the 2017-18 budget is scheduled for 5 p.m. today. Like other districts, Hillsborough was set to vote on the budget Sept. 12, but had to postpone the hearing because of Irma.
Except for a fire that consumed Lee Elementary School minutes after the surrounding neighborhood regained its electrical power, most Hillsborough schools did not suffer major damage, Eakins said.
He described water intrusion at Lennard High School and a tree that fell on Franklin Boys Preparatory School. But nothing else came close to the disaster at Lee.
"We take a lot of pride in taking care of our buildings,'' he said.
But financial challenges have dogged the large district long before the storm became an issue.
The 1,000--plus page budget document — rare for a School Board that normally votes on 23 pages — details steps the district has taken to keep a closer watch on spending for supplies.
It also includes five-day enrollment counts at the elementary schools, and tallies up jobs that have been phased out due to shrinking enrollment.
• Bing Elementary, which had 501 students on the fifth day of school, lost 11 teaching positions.
• Another 11 were lost at Cahoon Elementary, which was down to 201 students. Cahoon, an animal sciences magnet, is preparing to merge with nearby Van Buren Middle for a preK-8 school. While it remains a magnet through the end of this school year, many families and teachers elected to leave early.
• Just Elementary is down to 279 students and lost 22 teaching positions, which is to be expected as the adjoining North Boulevard Homes public housing complex closes down.
• Potter Elementary, a longtime F school in East Tampa, saw its enrollment drop by about 200, to 454. Potter lost 11 teachers.
Following the recommendations of an efficiency consultant, Eakins has cut the workforce — the largest in the Tampa Bay area — by more than 700 positions in the last year. These include 239 in the teaching ranks. Many of these teachers were not in the classroom but in specialist jobs, paid with operating funds after the grants that created those jobs had long run out.
The overriding goal is to wind up with a stable reserve of about $200 million in the district's main operating fund. That reserve is expected to shrink slightly this year, to $140 million.
Eakins said the district is about a year away from what he would consider a sound budgeting and spending system. While the proposed budget technically is balanced, it continues to show large transfers from one fund to another.
But, with many cuts already made, Eakins warned that the coming year will not be easy.
"We're at a point where every decision we make is going to be difficult,'' he said. "Parents are choosing our schools for the services we provide, and we don't want to take those away."
If you go
The Hillsborough County School Board will hold its final public hearing on the 2017-18 budget at 5:01 p.m. Tuesday at 901 E Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa.