Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Education

Eakins ‘exploring’ a referendum to help fund Hillsborough schools. ‘We have some clear needs’

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins announced Tuesday he is exploring a tax referendum to supplement what the district already receives from property taxes and the state.

Speaking at a School Board meeting, he cited the district’s ailing fiscal situation, which became apparent shortly after he assumed the superintendent’s job three years ago.

"I am going to be beginning exploration around a referendum," he said. "I’ve heard from many of you on the board and many people out in our community that we should look into a referendum to generate the revenue we need to fund our schools. I’m starting to research and explore what options are available. We have some clear needs."

Eakins continued: "The average age of our campuses is 49.9 years old. Our facilities are in desperate need of investment. We have dozens of schools that people think of as new construction. But just like the air conditioner or roof in your house, those major items are way past due for replacement."

The superintendent’s remarks come after two years of hesitation while other Florida districts benefited from added local taxes to support their schools.

Until now, Eakins and several board members have been reluctant to ask Hillsborough taxpayers for money until they could feel confident they had credibility and could win the vote.

But, as they waited, the financial pressures mounted.

The district owes nearly $1 billion to bond holders. It has almost another $1 billion in unfunded capital needs such as roofs and air conditioners. And it will need to spend another $1 billion to build new schools in high-growth areas such as south Hillsborough.

In addition, labor relations have soured as teachers are working at last year’s salary rates. Thousands were expecting raises of $4,000 and, with the school year almost over, it is not clear if they will see any of that money. The district and the teacher’s union have been at an impasse in contract negotiations since December, and the two sides are waiting for a recommendation from a special magistrate.

Hillsborough is surrounded by school districts that rely on extra local taxes to cover their expenses.

Since 2004, Pinellas County has collected tens of millions of dollars from a special school property tax that mostly goes to bolster teacher salaries. The tax is 50 cents on every $1,000 of assessed taxable value, and it typically generates more than $30 million a year.

In addition to teacher salaries, the money is used for teacher recruitment, textbooks and technology, and to preserve reading, music and arts programs. By law, the tax must be approved every four years. Pinellas voters have reapproved it by large margins in 2008, 2012 and 2016, most recently with 76 percent of the vote.

Pinellas has come to rely on the money at budget time. It is why the district offers the highest starting teaching salary in the Tampa Bay area — $43,000.

Pasco County has used its share of the Penny for Pasco, a one-percent sales tax it shares with the county government, to build new schools and renovate older ones. First approved in 2004, the tax won renewal from voters in 2012. It has also paid for school technology improvements and other capital upgrades.

Hernando County voters renewed their half-percent school sales tax in 2015. It generates about $8 million annually, which the school district uses to purchase more modern technology, replace aging roofs and air conditioning units, and make other needed repairs.

Eakins, in a message this week to his workforce of more than 25,000, said he has made great strides toward getting Hillsborough’s operational budget in better condition. Hundreds of jobs have been eliminated in the schools and the downtown office, bus rides are being phased out for students who live within two miles of their schools, and a new bell schedule will create even more efficiency in the coming year.

In his Tuesday remarks, Eakins placed blame on the state, saying it "simply isn’t funding education at the level our students and teachers need to continue our success."

Florida is routinely among the bottom 10 states for education funding, Eakins said. "We have options in Hillsborough County to do more to support our schools. So in the coming weeks I’m going to explore those options and keep this board updated on those results."

This is a developing story. Check back with tampabay.com for details.

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