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Would Hillsborough voters approve a special school tax? The debate begins.

As school district finances worsen, one School Board member favors putting a tax on the ballot. Another doubts it would fly.
Romaneir Johnson, chief financial officer for Hillsborough County schools, addresses the School Board during a board retreat last year. Johnson is drawing up a new financial plan for the district.
Romaneir Johnson, chief financial officer for Hillsborough County schools, addresses the School Board during a board retreat last year. Johnson is drawing up a new financial plan for the district. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 26|Updated Jan. 26

The campaign hasn’t started yet. But Hillsborough County School Board members are already debating whether to raise money through a special property tax.

Board member Jessica Vaughn came out Tuesday in favor of putting the tax on the ballot. Member Melissa Snively said she doubts her constituents would approve one.

Superintendent Addison Davis landed somewhere in the middle, pointing out that there are numerous ways the district can control spending, largely by keeping a close watch on personnel costs, which account for 89 percent of the budget.

Related: Hillsborough schools ask state for leniency because of COVID-19 absences

But Davis also noted that many districts have multiple special taxes to supplement state per-student funding.

The discussion, taking place at a School Board meeting, followed a presentation by chief financial officer Romaneir Johnson about the district’s continued financial hardship.

Last year’s infusion of federal COVID-19 relief funds saved the district from the possibility of a state financial takeover. But while the money shored up the district’s main reserve, “it doesn’t impact our operational deficit,” Johnson said.

She told the board that deficit was $61 million when she first drew up the 2021-22 budget. Then revenues dropped because more families used a state scholarship program to send their children to private schools. That loss boosted the deficit to $89.6 million.

“That is if we do nothing,” said Johnson, who is working on a plan to reverse these trends.

The projected year-end reserve is $57 million. Only $18 million of that would be unrestricted, meaning it is not committed to any specific use. State law calls for the district to have $30 million in unrestricted reserves, which means Hillsborough is $12 million short, Johnson said.

And the state is monitoring the district’s finances monthly.

Vaughn asked Johnson if she thought there was any way, other than a tax increase, to get the budget on a sound footing while meeting the needs of students.

“No,” Johnson answered.

Johnson said she is preparing a recovery plan that she will present to the board. She gave a citizens committee a preview of that plan in December, saying it was preliminary and subject to revision.

Its components include tighter hiring controls and a more timely way of charging capital expenses such as maintenance and building costs to the capital budget. As the capital budget is separate, this practice would protect the main budget reserve that is of concern to the state.

Johnson’s work and the discussions about a tax campaign are happening at a time of mounting frustration among the district’s teachers.

At the last bargaining session in December, the district did not respond to the union’s request to start teacher salaries at nearly $50,000. Teachers have not even been offered the money they would normally get by advancing a year.

The union says there is $70 million written into the budget for more instructional spending, and it is asking for about half that amount. District officials say that, despite what the budget says, conditions change and they must hold onto the money, given the financial picture.

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Teachers told the board that, between staff shortages and COVID-19 illnesses, the workforce is down by thousands every day. “And yet we’re still trying to meet the needs of the kids,” said union president Rob Kriete. “It’s really awful out there.”

Vaughn, in arguing for the ballot initiative, said her constituents feel they are “stuck in limbo” as they chose their homes for good schools, and now are finding those schools lacking in staff and supplies.

The last time the district asked taxpayers to support the schools was in 2018, when voters approved a half-cent sales surtax for capital spending. But that money cannot be used for ongoing expenses, such as teacher pay.

In Pinellas County, voters first approved a special property tax for schools in 2004 and have renewed it every four years since.

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