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With sales tax money on the way, 21 Hillsborough schools will get new air conditioning soon

An oversight committee met for the first time Friday to review the Hillsborough County School District's new sales tax. [Photo courtesy of Grayson Kamm]
An oversight committee met for the first time Friday to review the Hillsborough County School District's new sales tax. [Photo courtesy of Grayson Kamm]
Published Nov. 30, 2018

TAMPA — Months before they see a cent from a newly approved half-cent sales tax, Hillsborough County school officials are putting plans in motion for 21 air conditioning overhauls.

Deputy superintendent Chris Farkas laid out the process Friday at the first meeting of the tax's oversight committee, sharing dilemmas the district faces as it prepares to see its capital projects budget increase five-fold.

Among them: Will costs skyrocket with so much demand for contractors and supplies? Or, as senior project administrator Charles Plante put it, "Are we putting too much work on the street right now?"

And how will the district manage expectations after their aggressive campaign to win voter approval for the tax on Nov. 6?

"I think our success or failure after the first year will be, is my child sitting in a comfortable school?" said former legislator Ed Narain, a member of the oversight committee.

Twenty-one schools are slated to get major air conditioning work this summer, and the district has already begun the process of selecting vendors.

Questions arose this week because only two schools on the list — Dunbar and Folsom Elementary — are "Achievement" schools, a designation given to 50 mostly urban schools that have been targeted for improvement.

Farkas told the committee that the district has performed air conditioning upgrades at many of the Achievement schools in the last three years, using existing capital funds. The 21, he said, were chosen according to criteria including how many trouble calls they were receiving and how much energy was being wasted trying to keep the cool air flowing.

The remaining 19 schools on the list are: Burnett, Colson, Walden Lakes, Clark, Lowry, Schwarzkopf, Knights, Lincoln, Dickenson, Woodbridge and Lithia Springs elementary schools; Benito and Walker middle schools; and Durant, Sickles, Wharton, Blake, Alonso and Riverview high schools.

More than 200 schools will get air conditioning upgrades by 2029, when the tax expires, consuming about half the money. But not all those projects can happen at once. The money will arrive gradually, there are not enough vendors and contractors, and all of the work must be done in the summer, when students are not around.

The district has promised that each school it owns will get at least $500,000 in improvements that include playgrounds, classroom technology, floors and security equipment. The hard part, staff and committee members agreed, is making the other, less costly improvements between air conditioning jobs without disappointing students and teachers who must wait for cooler air.

In recent weeks, state estimates of the 2019 proceeds have grown to $151 million, about $13 million more than the district first projected, due to a booming economy.

But some of that new money could be eaten up by price hikes during a frenzy of construction jobs, Farkas said. That's what happened in Orange County, where voters approved more than one schools tax, and "it's more expensive to build than anywhere else in Florida."

The committee, headed up by former University of South Florida President Betty Castor and Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister, asked questions about transparency, financial accounting, and whether steps are being taken to steer the money to local businesses.

Farkas said the district's supplier diversity program, created to support small and minority-owned businesses, effectively brings local businesses into district projects. His team is creating a website, he said, that will enable the public to track every project funded by the tax.

By state law, all of the money must be used on items "that have a life expectancy of five or more years," or expenses, such as professional services, related to building them.

The money cannot be used for personnel costs, and Farkas assured the board that won't happen.

However, recent audits highlighted the many vacancies in the district's maintenance staff, a problem that likely contributed to the deterioration of air conditioners just more than a decade old.

Farkas said the district has begun hiring more maintenance workers and will continue to do so. They will be paid from other funding sources, not the sales tax.

Contact Marlene Sokol at msokol@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol on Twitter.