TAMPA — Hillsborough County School District officials took an important step Tuesday toward asking the voters to pay higher taxes for schools that, they say, are not getting enough money from the state.
The board voted 5-0 to submit a tax referendum resolution to the state, a first step toward trying to place such a question on the Nov. 6 ballot — though other factors may render that a futile step.
Under a new state law, the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (or OPPAGA), must now commission a performance audit.
The audit, which will not cost the district anything, will likely take about six months. The results must to be posted for two months after that, making it unlikely that such a referendum could appear on the November ballot.
"This is specific to a sales tax," Superintendent Jeff Eakins told the board.
Under state law, such a tax can be used only to fund capital expenses such as buildings and heavy equipment such as air conditioners. It cannot be used for salaries or other ongoing expenses.
"If this gets approved tonight, we start the ball rolling," said the district’s chief business officer, Gretchen Saunders. "We reach out to OPPAGA and we wait to see what happens."
Eakins also told the board he is researching options for another possible referendum — this one to raise property taxes, as is done in certain school districts such as Pinellas County.
Pinellas’ local tax was passed in 2004 and is re-authorized every four years. It supports teacher pay and buys specific items such as art supplies and musical instruments.
"I wanted to make sure I brought back to the board every possible, viable option," Eakins said.
Melissa Snively, one of two board members who were not at Tuesday’s meeting, asked attorney Jim Porter to read a statement saying she opposed both measures. In her statement, Snively explained that she missed the meeting because of a Boy Scout trip that had been planned previously.
Others on the board pointed out that the sales tax resolution does not commit the district to anything. But without taking that step, they feared the board will have no funding options.
"I think it would be irresponsible for this board not to at least look at a referendum," board member Cindy Stuart said.
District officials do not yet have estimates to show how much money could be raised by either of the two proposed taxes.
Compared to Pinellas, Hillsborough is richer in students and poorer in property, leading district leaders to believe Hillsborough is better off with a sales tax.
The Pinellas model also carries potential risks, Saunders said, as it must be re-authorized every two or four years. If voters were ever to reject it, teachers could see their earnings drop.
Eakins and the board have been under pressure for the last year or so to pursue a referendum as a growing number of surrounding counties take similar measures.
Hillsborough’s starting salary for teachers, $38,200, is one of the lowest in the Tampa Bay area. Teachers with 10 to 20 years experience, however, often out-earn their peers in other districts.
Hillsborough also is struggling to come up with the money it needs to repair aging air conditioners and build needed new schools in the fast-growing southeast suburbs.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.