Let Florida school boards increase their tax rate for capital projects, freshman lawmaker says

Rep. Susan Valdes, a former Hillsborough School Board member, says such a move would have helped her district avoid many maintenance problems.
Susan Valdes served on the Hillsborough County School Board from 2004 through 2018. [Times files (2016)]
Susan Valdes served on the Hillsborough County School Board from 2004 through 2018. [Times files (2016)]
Published January 11

For nearly a decade, Florida's school districts have been trying to convince lawmakers to restore the maximum property tax rate for capital projects back to $2 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The Legislature reduced the cap to $1.50 per $1,000 in the midst of recession, as growth slowed and construction projects tapered off. But even as the economy rebounded, and student enrollment again soared, the tax rate remained unchanged — despite annual pleas to reconsider amid multimillion-dollar gaps between available revenue and stated maintenance and construction needs.

Bills to meet the boards' requests have been few and far between. While chairman of the Senate Education Appropriations committee, Sen. David Simmons took up the issue in 2017, but he tied it to creating a permanent funding stream for charter school projects.

The idea failed.

This year, newly elected state Rep. Susan Valdes, a former Hillsborough County School Board member, is pushing the concept with no such strings.

With HB 215, Valdes proposes allowing school boards to increase their capital tax rate up to 2.0 mills with a supermajority vote. Boards could adopt smaller hikes if they wish.

Valdes said her time on the Hillsborough board made clear the need for such a move. The district did not have enough money to maintain air conditioning over the years, with outages growing more frequent. District voters ultimately took matters into their own hands, approving a sales tax rate increase in November to generate the needed funds.

Nearly two dozen districts around Florida took similar steps in 2018 to create revenue streams where the state has not filled the void.

"I know the impact those dollars would have made in my district on our facilities," Valdes said, referring to a higher capital property tax rate over 10 years. "This [bill] gives an opportunity for school boards by majority vote to bring it to the community. It will be a community decision, not the legislators telling them what to do.

"Let's bring some local control back into our local jurisdictions," the Tampa Democrat added. "It's hard when your hands are tied."

Hers is not the only call for getting more money into school districts through increased tax rates.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission also recommended allowing districts to levy up to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value without a referendum, to help pay for "direct security expenses" — many of which could be capital projects such as fencing, surveillance cameras and door locks.

Several lobbyists have said they anticipate a handful of other bills targeting this taxing issue. None wanted to predict whether any could pass through a Legislature that has routinely opposed tax increases, or win the signature of a new governor who also stressed his anti-tax stance during his campaign.