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Hillsborough school AC replacements should be fine this year. After that? Nobody knows.

Projections for sales tax collections did not anticipate COVID-19.
Rust covered the pipes in the air-conditioning pump room at Westchase Elementary School in 2018, before the voters approved a tax referendum to replace ailing equipment. The school is due for an airconditioning overhaul this year. [ Times]
Rust covered the pipes in the air-conditioning pump room at Westchase Elementary School in 2018, before the voters approved a tax referendum to replace ailing equipment. The school is due for an airconditioning overhaul this year. [ Times]
Published Apr. 10, 2020
Updated Apr. 13, 2020

TAMPA — As families adjust to home learning in this time of COVID-19, leaders of the Hillsborough County School District are looking ahead to a 10-year schedule of air conditioning installations that could be thrown off course by shrinking tax revenues.

This year’s 16 projects should be safe. Superintendent Addison Davis assured the School Board recently that money for the summer jobs was collected well before the coronavirus pandemic shut down theme parks, hotels and other moneymakers. Equipment is on order and, despite the state shut-down orders, construction is still considered an essential business.

That’s good news for Gibsonton, Westchase, Bevis, Robinson, Valrico and Pride elementary schools; Adams, Dowdell, Eisenhower, Franklin, Webb, Young and Memorial middle schools; Lavoy Exceptional Center; Leto and Newsome high schools. Eleven more schools, including Plant High, will see a continuation of work that began in 2019.

District officials said they will confirm the shipment of new air conditioners before they remove any of the old ones, just to be safe.

But beyond this year, it is too early to make any sound predictions.

“We should know the tax collection decrease in the next 60 days, which will allow us to have a greater understanding of the overall impact,” Davis wrote in his letter to the board.

The new air conditioners, coming after years of inadequate maintenance that the district blamed on state funding shortfalls, are being financed by a half-cent sales tax that voters approved in a November 2018 referendum. The tax was also pledged for roofs, security upgrades and other capital improvements, although air conditioning accounts for more than 80 percent.

Air conditioning overhauls happen only in the summer, as they are too invasive to perform while school is in session. That means beyond this year, "we have enough time to analyze the decreased sales tax information and its impact, and strategically prioritize the projects that are the most pressing for our schools,” Davis wrote.

As of March 12, before the shutdown, Hillsborough had collected $127.5 million and spent $102 million through the new tax.

A March 27 meeting of the referendum’s oversight committee was cancelled, as was a press event April 2 at Dickenson Elementary School. A virtual oversight committee meeting is being arranged for April 24.

The initial projection was that the tax would raise $130 million a year for a total of $1.3 billion over its 10-year life span. That rose closer to $150 million a year when the economy improved, but that the numbers dropped after the coronavirus crisis brought entertainment and tourist spending to a halt.

In addition to the other uses, the district had planned to spend some of the money on new school construction. But there will be less pressure in that area, now that the Hillsborough County Commission has approved higher impact fees to be paid by housing developers.

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Referendum dollars are just one piece of the $3 billion yearly budget that educates more than 220,000 students in Hillsborough.

Much of the financial data on which lawmakers rely will not be available until the end of the month, making a full analysis unlikely until May, Davis wrote. At the time, he predicted that a “massive hit” to the state budget could translate to a decrease in the Hillsborough schools’ budget of anywhere between $40 million and $100 million.

But much is unclear and since he sent that email, timetables about the illness have shifted. President Donald Trump has pushed consistently to re-open the economy as soon as possible. On Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested the schools could reopen some time in May.

Among the many variables: Some parents might decide that even after the schools reopen, they would rather keep their children home in remote learning situations. If that happens in significant numbers, the district could lose considerable funding for those students.

The more immediate challenges include making sure students do not miss out on the preparation they need to advance from elementary to middle school, from middle to high school, and to complete their graduation requirements. Doing so will cost money for summer school and summer remediation.

Summer school for rising sixth- and ninth-graders would cost about $810,000 per week if they met three hours for four days per week, assuming a ratio of 20 students per teacher.

Remediation, to bring up the skills of students who had fallen behind, would include incoming high school seniors. The district, Davis wrote, should expect to spend $3.4 million for English language arts and math instruction in those three grades, assuming 40 percent attendance in a four-week course that would meet five hours a day with one teacher for every 15 students.

“Please know that we are redesigning new options,” Davis said more recently. “We are working to develop many different plans for implementation. More to come on this.”