Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Hillsborough voters approve sales tax hike for AC, other school improvements

TAMPA – When asked Tuesday how many times he shared his speech about the Hillsborough County's School District's money problems, Superintendent Jeff Eakins laughed.

"Literally, I would probably say in two months I did it close to 80 to 100 times," he said.

The work paid off as voters gave enthusiastic approval to a half-cent sales surtax that will fund air conditioners, roofs and other capital needs.

"I'm elated," Eakins said. "This is extremely humbling. I'm very appreciative of the citizens here in Hillsborough County. They really sent a powerful message to students and teachers that they care and I'm just so appreciative."

The verdict ends a whirlwind campaign that, had it not succeeded, would have begun again for the March election.

Like most other large Florida school districts, Hillsborough turned to the local taxpayers because of state taxing and funding policies that left the district unable to maintain its facilities and build for the future.

Complicating matters in Hillsborough was a spending imbalance caused, to a large extent, by teaching reforms and other ambitious ventures. Eakins has spent the last three years wrestling the budget into shape, a process that included phasing out close to 2,000 jobs.

In the meantime, deferred maintenance caused air conditioners to break down. Students and teachers were miserable during what was the hottest September of record.

Eakins and school board members hesitated before going for the half-cent sales tax, which will last 10 years.

But, after backers of a transit tax initiative were successful in getting a one-cent referendum on the ballot, the district had little choice but to pursue a referendum as well. Had they not moved ahead, they feared the voters would not approve a second one later.

District leaders, who had to be careful not to mount a true campaign for the tax, prepared informational materials, adapted individually to each of their more than 230 schools.

Each school was promised at least $500,000 in tax proceeds, which will total $1.3 billion over 10 years.

Eakins worked with his communications and government relations staffs. "They did a great job putting me in front of key groups," he said. "Teachers and principals communicated the message. I didn't at all feel the burden was all on my shoulders."

Grassroots support came from PTA's, public school advocates and the teachers' union, whose executive director, Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, headed up the political committee, Strengthen Out Schools.

An oversight committee, headed by former University of South Florida President Betty Castor and Sheriff Chad Chronister, will serve as a watchdog to make sure the  money is spent as promised.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Hillsborough half-cent school tax

For national and statewide election results check out The Buzz

For local election results check out the Bay Buzz

For school board election results check out The Gradebook.

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