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School referendum dollars rebound in Hillsborough

Despite fallen revenues, the district is trying to keep AC and other projects on track.

TAMPA — After operating briefly in the red, the Hillsborough County tax referendum fund is on the road to recovery despite plummeting sales tax revenues, officials said Friday.

Tax collections for July totaled $8.76 million, just a 3.2 percent drop from the $9 million collected in July of 2019, according to Chris Farkas, the school district’s chief of operations.

“It’s almost amazing,” Farkas told the committee overseeing how the referendum money is spent. With theme parks, restaurants and other businesses shuttered during the spring, collections were down by more than $4 million in months that normally would be prosperous.

The school district is a little more than a year into about $1.3 billion in capital projects, financed by a ten-year, half-cent sales surtax that voters approved in November 2018.

More than half the spending is on school air conditioning systems that languished after years of inadequate maintenance. Air conditioning overhauls happen in the summer months, as they cannot be performed when the schools are filled with students.

District officials said they kept on track with the summer projects. But their account experienced a deficit of more than $7.6 million as they awaited the July check, which will cover the deficit with about $1 million to spare. To pay the bills, they borrowed from the millage money they receive from property tax collections. “July and August are when we spend the most money,” Farkas said. And they did not want to disrupt the ongoing work.

“From this point forward, we’re building up toward next summer’s projects,” he said.

The district is also spending referendum dollars on security entrance vestibules for the schools and high-end filtration systems for its new air conditioners, as an added precaution against coronavirus spread. New school construction and classroom technology are other uses of the money, along with routine upgrades such as painting and new playgrounds.

School Board member Lynn Gray, however, asked if enough is being done to improve the appearance of Hillsborough’s older school buildings.

“I see too many of our high-needs schools still with rusty corridors, water fountains that are just unsatisfactory, rest rooms that the tile has mold on it," she said.

Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray says some of the district's older schools are still too shabby, especially those serving high-needs populations.  [Times files]
Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray says some of the district's older schools are still too shabby, especially those serving high-needs populations. [Times files]

"I don’t want this committee to feel like our schools are pristine, especially the high-needs schools. It’s more of a simple fix in a lot of cases. But my goodness. Visually, we still have a lot of work to do.”

Farkas did not disagree. But he reminded Gray that the district had $1 billion of deferred maintenance — “that’s billion, with a B” — when they went out for the referendum.

To date, they have taken in $187 million, he said. “Which means, we’re still $800 million from where we need to be.”

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