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Board wary of seeking half-cent tax for schools

Hillsborough County educators say they need $1.4-billion over the next five years to build schools, renovate existing ones and shrink class sizes.

But there's a problem: The school district only has about two-thirds of the money it needs. The $419-million shortfall means there isn't enough money to renovate 13 schools or build 13 new ones.

Despite the deficit, most School Board members said this week they are not yet ready to push for a half-cent sales tax for school construction. Instead, they are looking for help from state lawmakers and county commissioners.

"We know we need to move fast, but we're not going to move crazy," said board member Susan Valdes. "The need is there, absolutely. . . . But we're not a board that acts on impulse."

Four of the seven board members said they first want to see what comes from the Florida Legislature, which opens its two-month session next week.

Some board members also are hoping county commissioners will raise impact fees on developers. Despite pleas from school officials and parents, commissioners last month postponed a decision on the fees, saying they want to gauge lawmaker action on Gov. Jeb Bush's school-spending proposal.

Board member Doretha Edgecomb said state funding could make a big difference in the amount of sales tax needed by the district.

"Patience may be a virtue here," she said. "(But) we still may need to say, it's not adequate."

Jim Hamilton, the school district's chief of staff, said an analysis of Gov. Bush's proposal of $2-billion for school construction shows Hillsborough could receive about $150-million.

"That would be a big chunk," he said.

And the likelihood that lawmakers will approve the governor's proposal?

"I don't really handicap the legislative process," Hamilton said.

Administrators and board members doubt there will be enough state money to make up all of the district's deficit, which in recent months has grown from $364-million to its current $419-million because of rising construction costs.

Board members will discuss their construction needs during a 9 a.m. workshop today at the School Administrative Center downtown. They already have hired an Orlando consulting firm to do an extensive analysis of the district's situation.

Some board members, including Jennifer Faliero, want to make sure the district has tapped every possible funding source before asking voters for more money.

"I'm saying, not so fast," she said. "I think it's going to be a tough sale to the voters to increase the sales tax another half-cent."

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia supports the board's reticence. She said she is not concerned that waiting until after lawmakers and commissioners have acted - possibly until early summer - would leave too little time to sell voters on the need for a tax increase.

"People are aware of our situation," she said. "It's not like we'd be starting from scratch."

Much of today's discussion will document the district's growth, school needs, funding sources and debt.

District officials expect student enrollment to grow 18 percent by 2010, to 224,000. About one-fourth of the district's schools already are at or over capacity. When mandated class size caps are included, about half of the schools have too many kids in classrooms.

To keep up with growth, the board uses bonds to pay for schools. Since 1992, the district's debt has increased from $220-million to $1.5-billion.

And the debt is growing. In the next five years, the district expects it to increase by about $500-million.

Board members say they are worried about incurring too much debt, putting the district's credit rating at risk. That's why a sales tax, even with legislative relief, may be the only source of new revenue to pay for schools, some board members say.

Board Chairwoman Carolyn Bricklemyer said the district should not count on lawmakers solving the district's construction crisis.

"A year ago I didn't expect it to be this bad," she said. "I'm ready to move forward but I'm just one board member. I think all seven of us have to be ready to support going forward with a sales tax."

Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com.

DISTRICT PROJECTS

Over the next five years, the Hillsborough School Board says it has more needs than money to pay for them. Below is a list of $419-million worth of projects at 26 schools the district says are currently unfunded:

MAJOR RENOVATIONS: Claywell, Essrig, Lewis, Lopez, Northwest, Tampa Palms and West Tampa elementary schools; Burns, Hill and Wilson middle schools; Bloomingdale and Gaither high schools; and Caminiti Exceptional Center.

NEW SCHOOLS: One middle and one elementary school in the northwest; one high school and one middle school in central Tampa; two elementary and one middle school in Brandon area; two elementary and one middle school in south county; one middle school in east county; and two elementary schools in northeast county.

Source: Hillsborough County School Board

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