Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Education

Hillsborough officials: New sales tax may be the only way to fix schools

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school officials say they have little choice but to seek voter approval for a sales tax that would help rebuild a system plagued by broken air conditioners, leaking roofs and other problems caused by years of delayed maintenance.

But that won't happen, they said, without a campaign that highlights the good they do and the importance of a strong school system.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough's plan for a better bottom line — cut hundreds of jobs, promote schools

"It's not just a revenue-generating plan, but a will-building plan," superintendent Jeff Eakins told the School Board, which met Tuesday for a workshop about its facilities needs.

Hillsborough's plan for a better bottom line — cut hundreds of jobs, promote schools.

Eakins and several board members have previously insisted it would be unwise to mount a tax campaign until they can restore public confidence in the system. The cost of such an effort could total as much as $450,000.

Tuesday, however, marked a change in tone as they began building a case for going to the voters.

Chris Farkas, the district's chief operating officer, said "it's hard to build confidence when you send your kid to school and there's no AC in the school. It's hard to build confidence in your employees when they don't have AC in the classroom."

While not committing to a referendum, Eakins said the time has come "to get creative," and that district leaders need to be "talking to our community on a regular basis" over the next 12 to 18 months.

Calls for a tax referendum — something that already exists in at least 14 counties — came from board members Sally Harris, Tamara Shamburger and Lynn Gray, with members Cindy Stuart and Susan Valdes allowing for the possibility. Board member Melissa Snively was silent on the issue, and member April Griffin was not at the meeting.

As they have in the past, Farkas and chief budget officer Gretchen Saunders assured board members that the state isn't providing enough money to meet the district's needs.

A cap on school property taxes of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value — down from a previous cap of $2 — has cost the district hundreds of millions of dollars since 2009.

Half the capital revenues of $135 million goes to debt service, and an unknown amount this year will go to charter schools.

Then there is the district's role in the funding shortfall — something that, until now, leaders were slow to acknowledge.

During the 2007 recession, Stuart told the board, former superintendent MaryEllen Elia deferred capital maintenance spending to protect jobs. That helped the community at the time. But the district never resumed the activities, and buses and buildings suffered as a result.

Among the most sobering statistics: Every $1 in deferred maintenance results in $4 in future capital costs. That's why air conditioners that were installed 15 years ago are breaking down even though they should last between 20 and 25 years.

READ THE GRADEBOOK: The talk of Florida education

Deteriorating roofs, while not as obvious to teachers and students, are also a big and expensive problem, Farkas said. And schools must be painted, not so much for cosmetic reasons but for protection from the elements.

Six schools are due to get new air conditioning systems this year, but many more need them.

Meanwhile, plans are under way to build a high school in the southeast part of the county, where the population is surging. But that will take three years when the school is needed next year. In that part of the county, Farkas said, "it's not 'Do we need it?' but 'When can we build it.'"

Eakins and others stressed the importance of public relations as the initiative moves forward.

District leaders this year have a communications plan that emphasizes promotional efforts in the traditional media and on social media. At the same time, they are fielding a barrage of criticism in the media and on Facebook sites about everything from the air conditioning crisis to board members' travel habits.

The district also is halfway through a painful process of reforming its spending habits, triggered by heavy losses to its reserves in 2015. Eakins has said he wanted to finish that process before asking the public for money.

But that was in the past.

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

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