With just two weeks until the start of school, I head into this new year excited about the opportunities that await our students. I also am eager to continue the work that school board members and I have implemented over the summer involving our four strategic priorities. School board members have outlined their priorities as we focus on graduation rates, communication, culture and relationships, and financial stewardship.
As superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools, I am responsible for a $2.8 billion budget. It is my job to ensure the money is spent wisely and in the best interest of our students. State law requires our school board members to set policy and oversee our budget. It is my responsibility to oversee the day-to-day operations of the school district and make recommendations to the board.
That means it is my job to maintain high levels of communication with the board members to make them aware of all the facts so they can make informed decisions. Let me give you an example of a decision that board members would not always be involved in.
Our district receives grants that pay for programs that expire after a set amount of time. If grant money is used to pay for the salaries of 10 employees and the grant ends, we must evaluate the effectiveness of the program and decide whether to continue to pay for those salaries. If the salaries must now come out of general revenue funds, board members would not be involved in that day-to-day decision. But ultimately that decision could have an impact on the budget; so I owe it to the board members to give them the supporting information and data that justifies this decision.
Typically, board members have to seek out answers and ask for agenda items to be highlighted at board meetings to get more information. I don’t believe board members should have to ask a lot of questions to find out information. Under our new practices, board members will be equipped with background information, and my staff and I will proactively communicate with them on agenda items that affect the overall budget.
We have to be better planners in our day-to-day operations to give the full picture to our elected officials and show how our decisions will impact the district as a whole. We also have to be prepared for emergencies which occur in our communities such as natural disasters and financial crisis. This requires our district to have an appropriate fund balance to meet our responsibility of providing a quality public education.
Our emergency fund stands at $152 million. Any agenda items that affect our fund balance moving forward must be noted to the board well in advance of a vote so they are able to seek more input. For the past four months, I have assessed various aspects of the school district to see where the district is and how we can strengthen our financial picture to be on even better footing over the next three to five years. I have met with other government officials and administrators, and they have shared their budgetary practices. I have been impressed with how they inform elected officials of their revenues and expenditures.
This level of transparency and proactive communication is key to a successful organization. As we implement similar best practices, this will make us stronger as an organization and allow us to meet the needs of the students we serve. It is my commitment to this community, our employees and our students that every decision made will be transparent and communicated proactively. By following best financial practices, we ultimately achieve the school board’s vision of preparing students for life.
Jeff Eakins is the superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools.