Work begins on referendum-funded projects in Hillsborough schools

Wharton High School is one of 21 schools that will get full or partial air conditioning replacements in the first round of sales tax-funded improvements to the Hillsborough County schools.  [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Wharton High School is one of 21 schools that will get full or partial air conditioning replacements in the first round of sales tax-funded improvements to the Hillsborough County schools. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published January 11
Updated January 11

TAMPA – With $10 million expected to arrive the first month, Hillsborough County School District officials are beginning work on the first batch of capital projects funded by the new sales tax.

Voters in November approved a half-cent surtax, and air conditioners at 21 schools will get the biggest bite of the early receipts.

"When I'm sitting in traffic on I-275 I can smile, because these people are giving us tax dollars that go towards our schools," said Chris Farkas, deputy superintendent over operations.

Farkas met with the tax's oversight commission on Friday, Jan. 11.

The largest group of projects, budgeted at a total of $27 million, will put a new roof and replace part of the air conditioner at Wharton High School in New Tampa, along with partial air conditioning replacements at nearby Benito Middle and Clark Elementary School.

Also on the list, and expected to cost $14 million, is a roof and partial air conditioning replacements at Sickles High in Citrus Park.

A committee will interview  designers and construction managers on Jan. 17 and 22, with the intention  of hiring 16 from each list. 

The district is building a website that will allow the taxpaying public to see all projects and contractors as they are approved.

District leaders, in pursuing the referendum, committed to spending at least $500,000 at every school, with air conditioning upgrades consuming about half the money. Early estimates put the yearly collections at $132 million a year. Since the election, state officials have revised those estimates, based on the improved economy, to an amount closer to $150 million.

Questions from the oversight committee concerned transparency and flexibility.

While the seven-member panel is complying with the state's open meetings and public records laws, the district's lawyers say there are broad exemptions for any projects related to security to avoid publicizing security lapses in the schools.

As for flexibility, Farkas said he fully expects to hear from principals that they prefer improvements other than those on the list. To a large extent, he said, the district will use other funding sources for the other projects to avoid deviating too much from what was promised.

Farkas also assured the group that the district is beginning to beef up the staffing in its maintenance division – but slowly.

While the tax took effect on Jan. 1, the money will not arrive until March.

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