Wednesday, November 21, 2018

How Hillsborough sold a school tax in just 10 weeks

TAMPA — The clock started ticking on Aug. 24, the day the Hillsborough County School Board voted to take the plunge.

District supporters had just 10 weeks to sell the public on a half-cent sales tax to support the schools' capital needs, including replacements for ailing air conditioners. They had even less time before early voting started.

And Hillsborough was behind other Florida districts in asking local taxpayers for money. Its leaders had held off for years, fearing their well-known financial difficulties made the tax hike a hard sell.

"Everybody we talked to in the other counties told us we had to have a long run-up," said Grayson Kamm, the districts's communications and media officer.

There was also the matter of the School Board, whose members were notoriously combative and had taken heat for firing their last superintendent.

The board had committed to pursuing a referendum in March if it did not succeed this week. But nobody wanted that.

So, despite fears of backlash, ridicule and just not enough time, the work began, resulting in a victory at the polls. Fifty-six percent of voters said yes to the tax.

Kamm's team and the government relations office scheduled superintendent Jeff Eakins for more than a dozen town hall meetings and far more appearances before civic and business groups.

Soft-spoken with an earnest and empathetic manner, he turned out to be the ideal pitch man.

He could answer detailed questions. Having implemented substantial budget cuts in his three years on the job, he also could assure an audience that spending was under control.

"I think Jeff stepped up to the moment in a really big way," said Melissa Erickson of the Alliance for Public Schools. "He had a conviction that the district had done what they needed to do, and he could tell that story compellingly."

Added Kamm: "Our biggest challenge, not going to lie, was getting him to shorten his presentation. He honestly could talk with you for two hours."

Erickson and others helped Eakins fine-tune his presentation. Anticipating questions about state lottery funding, they figured out that Hillsborough's share is barely enough to operate the schools for a day.

His public speeches — he estimated on election night that he gave as many as 100 of them — were just part of the outreach.

Erickson and Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers union, mobilized PTAs and other volunteers.

"I think people understand the need to support our schools," Baxter-Jenkins said. The challenge was making sure they knew about the referendum, and would find it at the bottom of a four-page ballot.

"We just went to any possible place we could find people and voters," she said. That included early voting sites, a crucial step.

And Baxter-Jenkins headed up the political action committee, which raised $350,000 for mailings, signs and media.

The union's work was impressive, Kamm said, considering the group had just emerged from a bitter wage dispute with the district.

Getting teachers' support was not hard, organizers said, as they suffer as much as students do when school conditions are hot and uncomfortable. But it was important to equip them with information.

"Every survey ever done, when you ask parents who they trust on public education, they say teachers first," Erickson said. "So we had to make sure that the inside messengers understood so when parents asked them questions, they could answer."

Kamm braced for questions about the district's role in publicizing the need for the tax.

His team prepared digital materials, personalized to each school, with examples of what the tax would purchase.

"We did not print any glossy fliers," he said. "We didn't send any mailers."

There was some criticism, he said, just a small number of inquiries. To anyone who thought the communications had crossed an ethical boundary into advocacy, Kamm said that if the district were asking for a tax hike, it owed the public complete information.

Others argued that by raising taxes on the local level, Hillsborough was letting the state off the hook. Kamm responded that it was important to do both: Meet the schools' immediate needs, and pressure Tallahassee to do its fair share.

By voting yes, he said, "it sends a strong message from the community to every lawmaker that look, when it comes down to it, I'm a voter who care about public schools."

While senior staff were present at many of the town hall meetings, Kamm insists they volunteered those hours and did not shirk their responsibilities during work days.

While the measure passed by 12 points, it was not without detractors.

School Board member Melissa Snively, who had voted in August against placing it on the ballot, predicted her neighbors in East Hillsborough would not have an appetite for the tax. Precinct results show she was right.

An oversight committee is in place to make sure the money is spent as promised. Snively said she wants to know more about that process, as "we're held accountable by our constituents. The oversight committee is not."

It now falls to district leaders to manage expectations. Money will begin to arrive in February from January's collections. The plan spans 10 years. Even if money were unlimited, there are only so many industrial-sized air conditioners and installers to be had.

Still, Kamm said, officials have begun preliminary work to begin the improvement projects. "We expect to have about 20 AC replacements this summer," he said.

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