Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Editorials

Times recommends: Yes on Hillsborough school tax

The Hillsborough County School District has achieved a record graduation rate and ranks among the top large school districts in the nation. Yet many of its schools inhibit rather than encourage learning because they are in such sad shape. Broken air conditioners, leaky roofs, lead in the drinking water - the schools are crumbling, and there is not nearly enough money to repair them or build new ones. As the state abdicates its responsibility to adequately fund public education, the only viable option is for Hillsborough voters to step up and approve a half-penny sales tax increase so kids can learn and teachers can teach in decent learning environments.

The need for more money is obvious. For more than a year, the Tampa Bay Times has chronicled how air conditioners routinely fail across the school district. Students are sweltering in classrooms where temperatures pushing 90 degrees are forcing some students and teachers to go home sick. On the first day of this school year, more than half of the county’s public schools submitted maintenance requests to fix busted air-conditioning systems. In the first nine days of this school year, the problem only grew worse, as a staggering 1,533 requests were made to fix air conditioners, temporary chillers, water fountains and water cooling units. Beyond endangering health, the busted cooling systems disrupt classes, destroy equipment and damage classrooms.

Air conditioners are just one problem. The district has a billion-dollar maintenance gap, thanks in part to a building boom two decades ago and a Florida Legislature that slashed property tax rates for capital projects during the economic recession and never restored them. The school district also shares responsibility for this crisis; it spent too heavily on a teacher training experiment and moved too slowly to cut costs and reduce a bloated workforce. Yet while the district has made progress in the past three years in shedding staff and controlling its budget, reducing expenses alone would not save nearly enough money to pay for needed repairs to schools.

The spending plan sets the right priorities and fairly spreads the money from the half-cent sales tax. Roughly half of the $1.3 billion the tax would generate over 10 years is earmarked for air conditioning improvements. It still would take the district several years to complete overhauls at 41 critical schools, but the tax would get real money into the pipeline and accelerate the repairs needed to provide healthier learning environments.

The second priority is to repair aging roofs. Tens of millions of dollars also would go toward a range of additional projects, from new plumbing, windows, fire alarms and floors to painting and weatherproofing. The work plan will protect the investments taxpayers already have made by extending the lifetime of facilities in the nation's eighth-largest school system. These buildings are community assets, serving as hurricane shelters and venues for major area sports, cultural and civic events. Every school would get money over time, and a school-by-school list of the projects is available at the district's web site, sdhc.k12.fl.us.

The Hillsborough School Board acted hastily this summer in putting the tax on the November ballot. It could have built a stronger case by working longer to rebuild its finances and restore public trust before seeking a referendum. But the flawed process should not detract from the core issue at hand - the district's undeniable inability to repair and maintain its schools without a significant new revenue source. This is another state responsibility that has fallen to local government. Nineteen of Florida's 67 counties already levy an additional half-cent sales tax for school capital needs, while others - including Pinellas - have committed additional property taxes for school operations. Voters have wisely embraced public education as a priority even if their elected state leaders have not.

The district has worked fast to get the referendum into reasonable shape. The 10-year tax is targeted to fill an immediate funding gap as the district pays down existing debt. That buys time for critical repairs until the district can free up tens of millions of dollars now going to mortgage payments. Fittingly, 85 percent of this tax would go for deferred maintenance - not new schools. Strict rules would limit the ability of privately run charter schools to tap the fund. And an independent oversight committee would meet publicly to ensure the money is spent as promised. That panel would be chaired by Betty Castor, the widely respected former legislator, state education commissioner and University of South Florida president. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister would serve as vice-chair.

Public schools reflect a community's values and its collective ambition for its children. Hillsborough voters should invest in the schools and ensure those buildings provide safe -- and cool -- learning environments. For Hillsborough County referendum No. 3 on a half-cent sales tax for school capital improvements, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting Yes.

Comments
Editorial: Trump should demand Saudis account for journalist

Editorial: Trump should demand Saudis account for journalist

Twenty-seven journalists have been murdered so far this year just for doing their jobs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That number doesn’t even include Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident journalist who hasn’t been ...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Editorial: Restart selection process for Florida Supreme Court justices

Editorial: Restart selection process for Florida Supreme Court justices

The Florida Supreme Court reached the right conclusion by ruling that the next governor has the authority to appoint three new justices to the court rather than departing Gov. Rick Scott. That is practical and reasonable, and it reflects the will of ...
Published: 10/16/18
Updated: 10/17/18
Editorial: Bilirakis mimics Trump, colleagues in misleading voters

Editorial: Bilirakis mimics Trump, colleagues in misleading voters

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis wants voters to believe he is different than his Republican colleagues in Congress and President Donald Trump. The Palm Harbor Republican says he pays more attention to local issues than to the president, claims he doesnȁ...
Published: 10/15/18
Updated: 10/16/18
Editorial: Answering questions about Hillsborough school tax

Editorial: Answering questions about Hillsborough school tax

The Hillsborough County school tax on the Nov. 6 ballot is a smart, necessary investment in the nation's eighth-largest school system. The 10-year, half-penny sales tax would create stronger, safer schools and a healthier learning environment for mor...
Published: 10/12/18
Updated: 10/16/18
Editorial: Tampa water project benefits entire region

Editorial: Tampa water project benefits entire region

A proposal that goes to the three-county utility Tampa Bay Water on Monday could benefit residents, the economy and the environment across the region. The utility's governing board will consider a proposal by the city of Tampa to redirect highly trea...
Published: 10/12/18
Updated: 10/15/18
Editorial: Rays’ purchase of Rowdies good for St. Petersburg

Editorial: Rays’ purchase of Rowdies good for St. Petersburg

The Tampa Bay Rays’ purchase of the Rowdies soccer team adds some stability to the region’s roster of professional sports franchises. It also guarantees that the Rowdies, who have amassed an enthusiastic fan base in a short time, will k...
Published: 10/12/18
Editorial: Remember Mexico Beach when next evacuation order comes

Editorial: Remember Mexico Beach when next evacuation order comes

When the sun rose Wednesday, Mexico Beach was a sleepy town of 1,200 people on Florida's northern Gulf coast. By sundown, it was gone. The pictures show the heartbreaking devastation left by Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle. Entire neighbor...
Published: 10/12/18
Shortsighted opposition to TECO

Shortsighted opposition to TECO

The destruction from Hurricane Michael is only the latest reminder of Florida's growing vulnerability to extreme weather, rising sea levels and other impacts of a warming climate. But the Sierra Club's opposition to Tampa Electric Co.'s plans to retr...
Published: 10/12/18
Times recommends: Chronister for Hillsborough sheriff

Times recommends: Chronister for Hillsborough sheriff

Florida sheriffs have long hand-plucked their successors from within the ranks. While he is a product of this tradition, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is uniquely qualified to be elected on his own merits.Then-Sheriff David Gee surprise...
Published: 10/11/18
Updated: 10/12/18
Times recommends: Yes on Florida Supreme Court retention

Times recommends: Yes on Florida Supreme Court retention

One justice on the Florida Supreme Court faces a merit retention vote in November, essentially an up-or-down vote of confidence allowing him to remain on the bench. Merit retention votes occur at least one year after the justice’s initial appo...
Published: 10/11/18