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Speaker Richard Corcoran to Hillsborough schools: Stop blaming the Legislature while you waste money

TAMPA — As it attempts to put its financial house in order, the Hillsborough County School District is being made a poster child for runaway public school spending.

The accuser: Richard Corcoran, the Republican state lawmaker from Land O'Lakes and a driving force behind this year's sweeping public education bill.

His message: The bill (HB 7069) is not why district officials are struggling to pay their expenses. Rather, Corcoran told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, "It's their bloat, inefficiency and gross over-spending. Their problem is their mismanagement."

School superintendent Jeff Eakins responded with an offer to meet Corcoran so the lawmaker can learn more about the district.

The remarks were the latest in a series of jabs from Corcoran, the speaker of the House and a possible candidate for governor.

This month after the Legislature wrapped up its special session, Corcoran tweeted about the Hillsborough district's "bloat" and "inefficiency." Then, as a guest at last week's Cafe Con Tampa community meeting, he mentioned a news item about renovations to the School Board auditorium that will cost $336,000.

Not all that money will be spent on required audiovisual equipment, he said. Accounts by a blogger and on television refer to an interior designer as well.

Corcoran took issue with the way modern public schools are constructed, charging, "They just want to build Taj Mahals."

Eakins' response: "These are very general statements by which the speaker may not understand the specifics. I would be more than happy to sit down with Rep. Corcoran, talk about our challenges, and specifically how we in Hillsborough County have been solution-driven to meet our students' needs."

Corcoran, contacting the Times later in the day, said much of his criticism referred to the prior administration and he thinks Eakins "is on the right track to right the ship."

Corcoran has been a lightning rod for criticism since passage of the sweeping package of legislation that, among other things, restricts districts' use of federal antipoverty funds and offers charter schools as alternatives to failing public schools.

Eakins was among superintendents who criticized HB 7069 and the way it was crafted, in secret and without full vetting.

But Corcoran insisted that politics had nothing to do with his remarks. "It's not over how they're treating me, it's absolutely over their gross mismanagement," he said.

Corcoran hearkened back to Hillsborough's teaching reform partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which ended in 2016. "Ask the Gates Foundation what they think about Hillsborough," he said, "All those high salaries and it's not helping the children."

The Times documented how the Gates project created a costly bureaucracy to evaluate teachers. Much of that was dismantled after the experiment ended.

And while Gates officials withheld the last $20 million of what was hoped to be a $100 million grant, they did not criticize the district at the time. They said research had changed on teacher evaluations, and they had never promised the full $100 million.

Similarly, there are two sides to the controversy over the board's remodeling of its meeting room.

"We want our facilities to continue to serve the needs of the community," board Chairwoman Cindy Stuart said. To that end, officials approved the purchase of new audiovisual equipment two years ago.

When it arrived in December, they considered returning it. But they worried that they might lose the ability to telecast their meetings. Because the room was being worked on, they decided to paint and update their logo. The designer was a staff member's friend who donated her time.

"I don't think the House speaker would want the legislative session to go black on the Florida Channel because the House chamber doesn't have updated infrastructure," Stuart said.

But Corcoran said the project is another example of wasteful spending. "The money belongs in the classroom," he said.

The School Board is meeting Tuesday for a daylong workshop about how to balance the budget.

Contact Marlene Sokol at msokol@tampabay.com or (813) 810-5068.

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