Joe Henderson: Don’t plug your ears when strapped Hillsborough schools come seeking tax hike

Hillsborough County schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins may pitch a tax increase referendum to take care of  vital needs like teacher pay and decaying buildings. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Hillsborough County schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins may pitch a tax increase referendum to take care of vital needs like teacher pay and decaying buildings. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published May 17 2018

Iím always dubious when public officials start talking about tax referendums. We live in a state where good governance is often measured by the amount of taxes that are eliminated, no matter the impact those reductions have.

But in this case, itís highly likely that the only option for Hillsborough schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins is to ask voters to reach into their pockets because the future of his cash-starved district depends on it.

I agree that the need is great, but that doesnít always matter in these parts when taxes are mentioned. The reflex reaction by many people is to scream, "No, no, no, no," and in case you didnít hear the first time, "No!"

Gotta try, though. Thatís why Eakins has the School Boardís blessing to explore if a tax hike of any kind has a chance of passing.

"We need more money. Itís time for the community to say enough is enough," board member Sally Harris said.

She has a good point.

RELATED COVERAGE Eakins exploring a referendum to fund schoolsí Ďclear needsí

This problem has been years in the making, and Eakins has been trying to make the money go as far as it can.

This isnít some rural district straight out of Mayberry.

Itís big business. It is the countyís largest employer and serves more than 200,000 students. It has a sprawling and complex transportation system, plus severe maintenance needs on aging buildings.

Teachers are rightfully demanding more money to do a vital and often thankless job. People keep moving here, so the district has to keep building more schools. There will be five new ones in south Hillsborough over the next three to five years.

"Without more money, it will be impossible to meet the growth, particularly in south Hillsborough," Harris said. "There are already 12,000 more single-family home permits in that area.

"What are we supposed to do? Tell people to stop moving to Tampa?"

Meanwhile, the Florida Legislature seems to delight in making life as tough as possible on public schools.

Lawmakers, in their thinly disguised glee to promote charter schools, have put financial handcuffs on districts like Hillsborough. In the name of education "reform," they have diverted millions from public schools into charter schools.

Hillsborough also will hire 100 extra security guards for schools to comply with a state mandate. Naturally, state lawmakers didnít provide enough money to pay for this.

Thatís another $7 million Eakins needs to find in the first year.

I can hear the argument from the no-tax crowd already: "Manage your budget better. Weíre taxed too much. Tell those whiny teachers to shut up and do their jobs."

That previous paragraph, by the way, doesnít reflect what I believe. Teachers represent our best hope to keep the wheels of society from flying off into the ditch.

But it is a fact that when the word t-a-x is even whispered, a lot of people get irrationally cranky and start spewing words like "waste" and "fraud" without always having facts to back that up.

"Jeff has shown he is managing the budget well," Harris said. "He has made cuts. If you go to the downtown office, the second floor there is basically empty. We are looking at combining office buildings. We are selling properties."

Eakins is expected to present a formal plan soon to the board. Assuming the idea is to go ahead with a referendum, the next big decision will be whether to proceed in November or wait until next March.

There will be a lot of skeptics out there, and understandably so. The district will have to be ready for that with a compelling argument that the financial problems are real and there is no other choice.

It also will have to hope a majority of people havenít covered their ears and screamed "NOT LISTENING" when the word tax is mentioned.

That may be the hardest part of all.