TAMPA – Saying they had little to lose, but much to gain for the county's children, Hillsborough School Board members decided Friday to ask voters to approve a half-cent, 10-year local sales tax increase during the Nov. 6 election.
The 5-2 vote, opposed by members April Griffin and Melissa Snively, puts the district in direct competition with a local group seeking a 1-cent sales tax for transportation improvements.
If both are approved by voters on Nov. 6, it would raise Hillsborough's sales tax – currently at 7 pennies for every dollar spent – to 8.5 percent, the highest in Florida.
The conflict with the transportation ballot initiative loomed large in the board's conversation. Griffin, for one, suggested the presence of two requests for voters to raise taxes could doom both measures, and said a better path would have been for them to collaborate.
But board member Cindy Stuart put forth a forceful argument that the issue should not be education vs. transportation. It's about what the school district is willing to do to get the money it needs to fix its aging buildings, she told her colleagues.
"Now lead. Now radon. … What's next?" Stuart said, referring to some of the district's infrastructure problems. "We have old buildings. What is next?"
She urged the board to place the referendum before voters in November, and, if that fails, again in March 2019. At worst, Stuart said, the vote fails and the district remains as it is.
"I am not sure what we are waiting for," she said. "Let the voters decide whether they want to pay for air conditioning."
The board ultimately adopted both resolutions, as Stuart recommended. Board attorney Jim Porter warned the members that certain factors outside the district's control remain in play.
A state audit still must be completed and publicly posted by Sept. 6. The decision to put the measure must also be approved by the Board of County Commissioners, although that is expected to merely be a procedural vote.
"We'll do everything we can to accomplish their goal," Porter said after the meeting. "I've already texted the county attorney to request a meeting."
Deputy superintendent Chris Farkas assured the board that the district, too, will do all it can to ensure the state audit, which board members initially believed could not be completed for six months, will not be delayed.
"We will not be the thing that holds up the audit," Farkas said, pledging his staff will work whatever time it takes to prepare the materials. "It will not be because they do not get the information from the district."
Related coverage: Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November
The performance audit is required by state law and is conducted by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability or OPPAGA.
School district officials on June 28 requested OPPAGA begin an audit of the school district for a March referendum, said Janet Tashner, the agency's general counsel.
As a result of Friday's vote, OPPAGA is now renegotiating with the auditing firm it had chosen.
But that leaves only eight working days to complete an audit of the nation's eighth largest school district before the deadline required by state law.
"We do everything we can to ensure counties and school districts do everything to meet their statutory obligation to post the result of the audit 60 days prior to the election," said Tashner
OPPAGA is already conducting an audit of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority and of transportation projects completed by Hillsborough County for the transportation initiative.
Citizens group All for Transportation got the measure on the ballot by collecting more than 50,000 signatures of registered voters. If approved, the initiative would raise sales tax by one percent for 30 years to pay for road, bus and other transportation projects.
After hearing of the school board's vote, All for Transportation chairman Tyler Hudson said transportation and education are both in need of new funding.
"Citizens started a grassroots campaign to get a much needed initiative on the ballot for dedicated funding to improve roads, expand transit services and options, reduce accidents and increase safety for drivers, walkers and bikers across the county," he said in a statement. "We're confident this effort will be successful in the fall."
But the group declined to specifically address whether a second sales tax hike on the same ballot would hurt the chances of either passing.
Both Griffin and Snively said they would back the referendum, even though they opposed holding it in November. Snively said she simply believed the district needed to take more time to get its house in order, to convince voters it can be trusted with more tax dollars.
"They're starting to open up to the possibility," she said after the session. "At the end of the day, Ms. Stuart is right. It's about the students. It kills me we don't have our house in order, and our students are the ones who are suffering."
Superintendent Jeff Eakins took no stance on the timing of the referendum, though he did urge caution to ensure it does better than simply getting on the ballot. He did tell the board that he has worked diligently to get the "house in order," both financially and academically.
The district has reduced 1,900 positions since 2015, he said, while also renegotiating contracts, selling surplus real estate and taking other steps to increase efficiency while building up reserves and driving down debt.
Yet revenue has not kept up with what Eakins called the 3B's — $1 billion in outstanding mortgages, $1 billion in deferred maintenance and $1 billion in capacity for growth.
"We don't have the revenue coming in to tackle the issues," Eakins said.
That's why the list of projects for the anticipated $131 million in annual sales tax income is clear, he said.
Members of the public encouraged the board to jump in, regardless of any competition with a transportation initiative. They argued people look to an area's schools more than its transportation system when choosing a place to live, and the schools need help now.
"Put it on the ballot and get some equity in these schools," longtime district critic Joe Robinson said, referring to some of the "raggedy" schools in lower-income parts of town. "Please let the voters decide. That's all we're asking."
Teachers union leaders said they would help push the referendum, too.
"I think the case is very clear that we need more," said Stephanie Baxter Jenkins, Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association executive director. "There are over 200 schools in this district, and they are old. They are beautiful, and they have all the issues that 100 year old buildings have."
Not everyone was on the same page, though.
Terry Kemple, another frequent critic, said the board had too much convincing left to do.
"You have to do something to restore our trust," Kemple said, though adding that November would be better than March, because a win for transportation would likely seal any chances for a board referendum in the spring.
Board members did not need much of a push to support the referendum. All generally agreed, as chairwoman Sally Harris put it, "We are in crisis. The revenue is needed not a year from now or 5 years from now. … This is not a wish list, guys."
The issue really boiled down to timing.
Members said they initially looked to a March vote because they had the impression it would take six months to get a state audit completed. Then they saw the transportation initiative get one in short weeks, after having asked after the board.
"Hmmm, I wonder how that happened," Harris said.
That prompted them to give the November time frame a closer look.
They also worried about having the question near the bottom of a ballot filled with controversial constitutional amendments that might put voters in a "no" frame of mind.
But at the end of the two-hour meeting, they determined that the need outweighed the political concerns. There's never a good time, board member Lynn Gray pointed out.
"Families see it and they know this district is suffering," board vice chair Tamara Shamburger said. "I think the community is ready for it."