Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Education

Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

TAMPA — Money that the Hillsborough County School District needs to build schools and replace air conditioners might be farther from reach, thanks to a new state law and a bureaucratic process required before the voters can decide on a tax referendum.

The law could delay a sales tax referendum by about eight months, past the November election that would usher in the needed bonanza.

An April 16 letter from the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability said districts had to submit their resolutions by April 23 to arrange a required performance audit by the legislative office, known as OPPAGA.

Hillsborough spokesman Grayson Kamm said that when district leaders contacted OPPAGA to arrange the audit, they were told there could be a six-month wait. And the results would have to be posted for two months before the referendum could take place.

By that logic, it would be February at the earliest before such a vote could take place.

Janet Tashner, OPPAGA’s general counsel, said the law does not require six months. But, between finding the appropriate accounting professionals and looking at all areas that the law requires for a performance audit, it could very well take that long.

"It’s really dependent on the extent of the audit," Tashner said. "We’ve done some that are very narrow and some that are extremely broad. It depends on who responds and who is available. It could take longer, it could take less."

The School Board will be asked to vote Tuesday on the wording of the required resolution.

But Kamm said that’s a preliminary step, like securing a passport for an overseas trip that may or may not happen.

In losing the option for a November referendum, Hillsborough would miss an attractive window of opportunity, as a large turnout - and, specifically, a large Democratic turnout - is anticipated in this election cycle.

And they’re not the only referendum game in town. A citizens’ group called All For Transportation is gathering the required petition signatures to place a question on the November ballot about a penny sales tax to subsidize public transportation and needed road repairs in the cities and county. And, because the law requiring the OPPAGA audit specifies "county or school district" and the citizen group is neither of those two things, they do not believe they will have to take that step.

Hillsborough-based education advocate Melissa Erickson said she does not think the new state law or cumbersome process happened by accident.

"They continue to strip local control and take away local options from the leaders who are elected and are closest to the issues that really face our schools," said Erickson, founder of the nonprofit Alliance for Public Schools.

"There is no proof or no substance to any claims that districts are wasting public education construction dollars. These departments are under regular state audit anyway."

A growing number of districts, including Pinellas and Orange, Sarasota and Manatee, have asked their local taxpayers to supplement state schools funding, either through a higher sales tax or an added property tax.

Pinellas uses a property tax, which is practical there because Pinellas has a wealth of valuable real estate but roughly half as many students as Hillsborough. In Hillsborough, which is considered "student rich and property-poor," a sales tax is considered the more lucrative option.

A half-cent sales tax would support capital needs, such as new schools and air conditioners. It could not be used for recurring expenses, such as teacher pay.

But any source of revenue would relieve the financial pressure that affects all aspects of the district’s operations. Between bond debt, unmet capital needs and the prospect of building for a growing population in the Ruskin area, Hillsborough is some $3 billion in the hole.

Hillsborough also has among the lowest starting teacher salaries of any local district, despite the resolution this month of a year-long salary dispute with its union.

District leaders say the Legislature increased per-pupil funding this year by only 47 cents, which is more than eaten up by rising costs.

Republican leaders dispute the 47-cent figure, saying they approved far more. But much of the new money had strings attached - for example, security funds that must be spent to place armed guards in all the schools.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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