TAMPA — Who foots the bill on road projects near new schools has been a thorny question that has divided two of Hillsborough's biggest governments for the past year.
A circuit court judge sided with the school district last week, ruling that if the road project isn't touching the property line of the new school, then the county should pay the tab.
The School Board "is not responsible" for paying for road projects unless the improvements are adjacent to, or run through, the school site, Judge Ralph Stoddard wrote in his Sept. 25 ruling.
No matter who pays, it's still taxpayer money. But Stoddard's decision clarifies an issue that fractured a relationship between the two governments that built at least 36 schools during the housing boom years of 2002 to 2006.
"We always thought the county and School Board had worked well together, and this ruling gets us back to that," said School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez.
The School Board balked at recent county attempts to shift road project expenses to the district, and sued Hillsborough County last year, saying needed school construction was being delayed. One project in particular, a $75-million campus in East Hillsborough, had frayed relations. The county said the district should pay more than $1-million in road improvements nearly a half a mile from the site. The board said since the improvements were so far away, it shouldn't pay.
Stoddard's decision came down to the definition of a single word: "contiguous."
Florida law states that school boards may spend money on road and sidewalk projects that are "contiguous" to school property.
The School Board had argued that it didn't have the authority to spend money on projects if they weren't touching the schools.
But Hillsborough County referred to Webster's New World Dictionary, which defines "contiguous" to mean "so as to be away, at a distance." Under that meaning, the district could, and should, pay for these improvements, the county argued.
While Stoddard acknowledged that Florida law was ambiguous on this matter, he concluded the best definition of "contiguous" was found in Black's Law Dictionary: "touching at a point or along a boundary."
Therefore, Stoddard wrote, the county had no authority to impose any conditions on school construction that require road improvements from afar.
Assistant County Attorney Robert Brazel said he believed that Stoddard's ruling conflicts with state law, but said it was too early to determine if the county would appeal the decision.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or firstname.lastname@example.org