The reserve fund that disappeared


This is one of the things that reporters like me used to keep track of. Most papers don’t send reporters to cover these things anymore, which is why stories like this appear 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?

3 thoughts on “The reserve fund that disappeared

  1. Out here in the wild west, public education has always been underfunded. When my son started Kindergarten, they asked parents to send a couple of rolls of toilet paper to school with their kids. He’s 27 now and teachers still have to provide basic classroom supplies for the children.

  2. Dare I forward the suggestion that no one mentioned the ongoing disappearance of the reserve funds BECAUSE they knew exactly where they were going? And didn’t want it to become a topic of discussion, with pointed questions, and demands for receipts, etc?

    It might be worth checking into whether any of the board members have recently acquired spacious new homes, or taken extravagant overseas vacations, or started a new business with some seed money “they just stumbled across”.

    Even if it turns out that the members are all squeaky-clean, there’s still the question of whether they knowingly allowed the reserve to be piddled away for some political or private reason, like maintaining their positions on the board, rather than doing their jobs, which include facing up to the public with tough financial choices when they need to be made, rather than hiding them in the hopes they will correct themselves eventually. Which they sometimes do, but apparently not in this case.

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