State threatens to pull $23 million if Hillsborough schools do not hold in-person classes by Aug. 31

The stakes are high for Hillsborough County Public Schools as the district stands to lose millions in funding if school leaders move forward with starting the school year with four weeks of online classes and no in-person instruction.

Hillsborough County school board members say the Florida Department of Education is threatening to withhold approximately $23 million from the school system. 

Tamara Shamburger said that's the figure she's heard during her discussions with Superintendent Addison Davis.

"It's a ton of money and I don't think that they should threaten to withhold money in the middle of a pandemic for students. I mean, this is what we're talking about," said Mary Anderson, who helped create the group Safe Schools, Safe Community. "You're going to withhold money from our children that we're trying to educate and keep safe."

Last week, the school board voted to begin the year with a four-week, online-only period, reversing its initial decision to reopen schools Aug. 24. That change was made knowing state funding might be on the line due to Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran's emergency order requiring all schools to reopen.

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Corcoran laid into the district during a news conference Monday with Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"We have 66 districts all very content with their plans that they've submitted. We have one district who submitted their plan, liked their plan, and then suddenly went back and they have that right," Corcoran said. "Is it right by parents? Is it right by students? Is it right by teachers? No, it's not."

During a virtual panel on education with state Rep. Janet Cruz Tuesday, board member Karen Perez discussed the funding challenges the district already faces during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When something like this happens, our children have no idea how to use a laptop, an iPad, even and iPhone," Perez said. "We need the funding, first of all, to get the electronics that we require for our kids."

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District 3 school board member Cindy Stuart said implementing the district’s original reopening plan by the first day of school on August 24 would be tough.

“It’s logistically challenging, and I think he’s trying to find a way to get Tallahassee to maybe find some compromise,” said Stuart. “There has to be some compromise here.”

The response to the pandemic in the spring left the district in a budgetary hole after incurring unexpected expenses, including e-learning equipment and school safety supplies.

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A district spokesperson did not comment on the number, but the Hillsborough County Schools tweeted Superintendent Davis traveled to Tallahassee to meet with representatives from the Florida Department of Education to "advocate for the safety and health of our students and staff."

In a statement to FOX 13 News, Cheryl Etters, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said:

"We’re still collaborating with Hillsborough County Public School District, so we are not going to speculate [about withholding funds].  We’ve been grateful to have the constant partnership of Superintendent Davis and their team and look forward to a pathway for educating Hillsborough County’s at-risk students and families who wanted the choice of either in-person or innovative learning."

Parents told FOX13 they are concerned, too.

"It's a ton of money and I don't think that they should threaten to withhold money in the middle of a pandemic for students,” said Mary Anderson, a parent with the Safe Schools, Safe Community group.