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Eakins takes school district’s story to Ballast Point

Hillsborough County Superintendent Jeff Eakins opens a series of town hall meetings at South Tampa Fellowship. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Hillsborough County Superintendent Jeff Eakins opens a series of town hall meetings at South Tampa Fellowship. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Published Sep. 18, 2018
Updated Sep. 19, 2018

TAMPA — First, the disclaimer: "I'm not here to tell you how to vote," Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins told his audience. "I'm here to educate you about why we're here."

From there, in his Tuesday evening presentation, Eakins described the work he has done to erase spending deficits and the way schools are struggling under state spending formulas.

"Forty-fourth is not the right number out of 50 states," he said.

He explained the workings of a proposed half-cent sales surtax that will appear on Hillsborough County ballots Nov. 6 to fund the schools' infrastructure needs, how oversight will come from a committee headed by former state Sen. Betty Castor.

Tom DuSold, a Robinson High School parent in the audience, worried that much of the $1.3 billion would be used for new school construction.

"Is the bulk of the money going to go to fix the schools that are broken?" he asked.

Eakins assured the group that each school will receive at least $500,000. A school-by-school list is expected shortly.

Still, some worry that crowding will continue in the urban schools.

"We're bursting at the seams," said Jana Alexander, PTA president at Ballast Point Elementary School.

Eakins' appearance at South Tampa Fellowship was the first in a series that will take the superintendent as far east as Plant City and as far north as Wharton High School.

And they're not the only ones. Eakins was keynote speaker on Sept. 13 at the Greater Seffner Chamber of Commerce. He's booked Oct. 5 at 1 p.m. at the Lion's Eye Institute for Transplant Research.

His message has several chapters, and Eakins describes it sometimes as "a miniseries."

First: Hillsborough built nearly 70 schools during the 1990s and early 2000's, having to borrow close to $1 billion through bond sales because it was impossible to collect developer impact fees fast enough to satisfy a booming population.

Second: The state, caught in a recession, limited the amount of money counties could assess homeowners to pay capital expenses, including the debt service for all those new schools.

Third: The economy recovered, but the state did not ease up on the property tax restrictions. Facilities, especially air conditioners, began to wear out but there was not enough money in the budget to maintain them properly.

Finally: Growth has resumed, especially in the southeast suburbs. While many district schools have empty seats, those schools are far away from where the growth is.

In the simplest terms? Hillsborough faces more than $1 billion in new construction needs, almost $1 billion in deferred maintenance and almost $1 billion in debt.

Other counties, meanwhile, have passed referendum measures of their own. At last count, nearly a third of all Florida counties – including most of those surrounding Hillsborough – were collecting either a sales surtax or a local option property tax to support their schools.

"I don't want to be on the losing end of that competition for businesses, for students and for our families," Eakins said Tuesday.

Hillsborough, compared with other school districts, in local school funding. “That isn’t a piece of pizza up there,” Superintendent Jeff Eakins said.

School district leaders estimate the tax will cost the average family $63 a year. It is expected to raise $131 million a year for 10 years, expiring about the time the district will have finished paying off most of those bonds.

Questions touched on other topics besides the referendum. Shannon Smith said her son tales a 5:30 a.m. bus to get to a magnet school that begins at 8:30 a.m.

"This child's in eighth grade. He's exhausted in school," she said.

Eakins said he has been asking his staff to think of ways to spread magnet programs out throughout the county to cut down on such long commutes.

He also stressed the progress has already has made in making the system more efficient.

"We couldn't be here two years ago," he said. "We couldn't be having this conversation."