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Schools sales tax is closer to ballot

They've quietly mulled the possibility of a sales tax for months, but on Tuesday Hillsborough County School Board members took their first concrete steps toward putting one on the November ballot.

And they want the Hillsborough County commissioners to know it.

The two governments have been hostile toward each other recently as they battle over how best to ease school crowding.

Board members said they are scheduling a meeting to work out the details necessary to put a half-cent sales tax on the ballot that would help fund a $390-million school construction and renovation deficit expected by 2010.

The life span of a tax is still being studied.

The money would be used primarily to build schools, because a quarter of the district's schools are at or above capacity and the 188,000-student district gains 5,400 new students a year on average. Students and parents, particularly those in the northwest and Brandon area, are increasingly frustrated with crowding.

"We just can't sit around twiddling our thumbs," said board member Candy Olson after the meeting. "We don't have a choice. We have to build schools for children."

Board members seem resigned to the necessity of a sales tax even if the county commissioners agree to boosting school impact fees on developers.

"We can't keep hoping the County Commission will do right by our kids," Olson said.

Plus, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said, higher impact fees would not fund all of the district's new school needs.

"It's important for all of us to be serious about what the needs are we have. We're not jumping to this lightly," Elia said.

The County Commission has not yet addressed the recommendations that a school crowding task force issued in December. The 16-member task force recommended school impact fees on builders be raised, the sales tax be upped by a half-penny, school boundaries be shifted and all home sales transactions be taxed.

It is up to commissioners to raise the impact fees, which at $196 per home are the lowest in the state. The task force recommended the fee be raised in increments to $4,000.

Expressing frustration with the county, the four board members who attended the meeting asked Elia to send a letter to commissioners that requests they act on the task force's recommendations and informs them of the board's plan to address a sales tax.

"I just think the County Commission needs to suck it up," said board member Carol Kurdell. "We're doing our part. At some point, you have to stop talking about it."

Commission Chairman Jim Norman and Commissioner Tom Scott, co-chair of the school crowding task force, did not return telephone requests for comment.

Parent Devon Polo, whose third-grade son attends the most over-capacity school in the county, Bryant Elementary, was relieved to hear the board's desire to move forward on a sales tax, even if it will cost taxpayers more.

"Everybody's got to do their part," she said.

Elia said the commissioners plan to discuss the task force recommendations at their Feb. 15 meeting. She encouraged "good citizens" to attend and be ready to speak out.

In other business:

+ The board moved closer to owning all of the 77 acres needed for a high school in Lutz, agreeing to the purchase price for the final two pieces of land. They agreed to pay $2.06-million for a 51-acre parcel and $600,000 for 5.9 acres for property off Lutz-Lake Fern Road on property next to McKitrick Elementary and Martinez Middle schools.

The district has bought one other piece of land for $2.75-million.

The school, which is scheduled to open in August 2008, will relieve three crowded schools, Gaither, Sickles and Alonso high schools.

+ The board also agreed to a land swap with the county to build an elementary school in Citrus Park's Mandolin neighborhood.

The district will receive 23 acres at the dead end of Citrus Park Drive and the county will receive 15 acres, which will become county park land, just west of the Fawn Ridge subdivision.

The school district is paying the county $390,000, which represents the difference in appraised value between the two properties.

+ The board named several new administrators and principals.

Tampa Bay Tech High School principal William Person was named to the new position of general director for pupil placement and support. New principals include McDonald Elementary assistant principal Dave McKeen to principal; Mendenhall Elementary assistant principal Patricia Orta to principal; Brandon High School assistant principal Leslie Granich to principal; East Bay High assistant principal Clyde Trathowen to principal; and Riverview High assistant principal Jeff Boldt to principal of Chamberlain High School. Also, Adams Middle School principal Michael Hoskinson was moved to Coleman Middle School.

Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melanie@sppimes.com.

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