What's more important to you, your family, your livelihood and the region — the school system or the transportation system? That is framing up as a political choice for residents in Hillsborough County. But it's also a false choice; the region needs to invest in both schools and transit, and it is vital in the months ahead that these two critical pieces not be pitted against each other.
Hillsborough school leaders are beginning to lay the case for a new revenue source, given the belt-tightening at the local level and the cuts state lawmakers in Tallahassee have made to the public school districts' ability to raise new capital funds. There is not enough money to keep up much less to grow; the district has spent less on maintenance every year since 2012. Its 249 buildings are in such bad shape the county would have to spend $100 million annually for basic upkeep. The average building is 49 years old, and half are older than 50 years. Newer ones are 20 years old but are already nearing their planned 25-year life spans. Air conditioning systems have been shortchanged of routine maintenance and continue to fail across the county, but the district can afford to replace only several each year.
Even after redirecting general fund dollars to maintenance and construction, the district comes up short: It has $1 billion in debt from previous school projects, $1 billion in deferred maintenance and another $1.2 billion price tag awaiting for new schools in the fast-growing suburbs, where few campuses already exist that could offer some opportunity for consolidating school facilities.
District officials and School Board members are considering several options, primarily a sales surtax, which would require voter approval in a countywide referendum. Sixteen of Florida's 67 counties levy a half-cent sales surtax for school construction, improvements and technology. That tax generated $538 million this year for all combined, with nearly half being generated in tourism-rich Orange County.
A half-cent in Hillsborough would generate $125 million, which would help immensely, as long as voters agreed to renew the tax over the long-term. But county and regional officials are also expected to renew an effort to pass a sales surtax for transit improvements. Hillsborough has a multi-billion dollar backlog in transportation spending (and at least $1 billion more in needed flood-control improvements). The competition for these funds will be steep. It cannot turn into a mad dash where jurisdictions compete against each other for infrastructure that is vital for keeping the Tampa Bay area dynamic and competitive.
Backers of both the school and transit initiatives need to realize the value that each brings to the region. They should recognize that a sales surtax is only one of several pieces of new revenue to consider. School leaders and the public need to press legislators in Tallahassee to fund new school construction, and to return the cap on property taxes for school maintenance to at least its pre-recession levels. Hillsborough needs to continue examining the potential for consolidating some campuses and selling surplus school property.
Transit supporters need to use the new spirit of outreach at the Department of Transportation as a means to explore the state's willingness to invest in new mass transit options for the region. That should be an integral part of the Tampa Bay Next highway expansion project — and with the right approach, it could be. The bay could land a partner with the state on mass transit and save local dollars in the process. That would be a solid selling point to get a transportation referendum to pass at the polls.
There's no sense in pitting one priority against the other. County voters supported the Community Investment Tax because they saw the value in investing in schools, public safety and a community sports stadium. The search for new money could easily unleash a mad dash in the months ahead as school and transit supporters seek to line up advocates in the business community. Business leaders should make the case that investing in both promotes the region's competitiveness and quality of life. Suburban voters need to see transit as a means for sustaining their communities. School leaders should see better transit as key to reviving urban neighborhoods and breathing new life into older schools. The two go hand-in-hand, and the state of both shapes the image of this community to the outside world.