It’s no surprise Hillsborough County Public Schools leaders have their hands full with a slew of challenges, including school security issues, an increasing student population, overworked school counselors dealing with everything from academic achievement and career development to mental health needs, financial woes and employee acquisition and retention.
A town hall meeting at Newsome High School, hosted by Superintendent Addison Davis and school board members, attempted to address these issues and other parent concerns. Several dozen parents attended the event, where they were able to submit questions to the panel, many of which were answered during a 45-minute Q&A session after the initial presentation.
Prior to the Q&A, Davis and other school officials delved into the reasons behind the need for the property tax referendum being placed on the August primary election ballot. If approved by voters, property owners would pay an additional $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value, which is estimated to bring in about $146 million a year.
For the upcoming school year, first-year teachers will earn an annual salary, based on a 10-month schedule, of $47,501, based on an eight-hour workday and 198 days per school year, the same as a teacher with seven years of experience. In addition to a teacher shortage, finding support staff (custodians, nutrition assistants and bus drivers) has been a challenge. Over the past year, the county has raised its hourly wage for drivers to approximately $16. According to Davis, proceeds from the tax would go toward higher salaries and allow the district to improve student programs.
“It’s difficult to compete with other employers with relation to pay,” said Davis.
Several job fairs have been held to assist with staffing issues. Interested applicants can also apply online at www.hcpsjobs.com.
One FishHawk resident and meeting attendee, who is a member of the military and has two children enrolled in Hillsborough County Public Schools, took a lot of notes during the meeting. Of particular concern was buses being prompt in picking up students. His daughter has sometimes spent up to an hour waiting for the bus to show up to take her to school.
“Overall, I believe attending the meeting was time well spent,” he said.
Not everyone agreed.
Vice President of Council Operations for Hillsborough County PTA Kimberly McDonough, also PTA president of Mulrennan Middle School, said some parents had concerns about ‘Here Comes the Bus,’ a Synovia Cal/Amp technology Hillsborough County Public Schools will use this fall to allow parents to know when their child’s bus will arrive at the bus stop, if their child is on the right bus and got off at the right stop in the afternoon and alert parents that the bus will be late due to heavy traffic.
Students scan their student ridership ID card, which uses passive RFID technology, as they enter or exit the bus, and this information is sent over-the-air to the cloud via encrypted data. The only information stored on the ridership ID card is a 56-bit card number (no identifiable information like student number, name, address or social security number).
Hillsborough County wouldn’t be the first school district in Florida to utilize the app. The Leon, Marion, Martin, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Sumner and St. Lucie school districts use the app, as district leaders deal with delays in routes and bus driver shortages that have frustrated parents.
“Some parents had concerns about the RFID chips and data privacy and didn’t have all their questions answered,” she said.
Hillsborough parent Josephine Amato said the district didn’t satisfactorily address the concerns she has over the new app.
“Parents have valid questions regarding data collection and safety of the data, and I feel like district officials are being dismissive,” she said.
According to district officials, while each bus rider will be entered into the system manually for the child’s safety, a child is not required to wear the student ridership card.
At the end of the meeting, Davis shared that recently released assessment scores indicated — despite pandemic-related stressors such as student absences and teacher vacancies — district students outperformed the state average in key areas, including algebra, geometry, biology, civics and U.S. history.
“We have seen gains in student learning,” he said. “Imagine what these gains would be if these complications weren’t in our way.”
For more information about Hillsborough County Public Schools, visit www.hillsboroughschools.org.