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Hillsborough school tax heads to August ballot after close vote

School Board members approved the initiative 4-3, with detractors saying housing costs are already too high.
The Hillsborough County School Board, shown here at a Dec. 14, 2021, meeting, voted on Tuesday, April 19, 2022, to place a special property tax referendum on the August ballot.
The Hillsborough County School Board, shown here at a Dec. 14, 2021, meeting, voted on Tuesday, April 19, 2022, to place a special property tax referendum on the August ballot. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 20

The Hillsborough County School Board narrowly agreed Tuesday to ask voters this summer for a new property tax.

If the measure gains approval in the Aug. 23 primary, property owners would pay $1 for every $1,000 in assessed value, joining 21 other Florida school districts that have looked to their communities to supplement state appropriations.

Superintendent Addison Davis has estimated the tax would raise $126 million a year, of which $106 million would remain in the district and the rest would go to independently managed charter schools.

School superintendent Addison Davis
School superintendent Addison Davis [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Davis said the nationwide teaching shortage is the most compelling argument to put the question to taxpayers. “We have thousands of students who do not have stability with qualified teachers,” he said.

The referendum will come four years after a sales tax measure that passed with 56 percent of the vote. But that was before the pandemic, war in eastern Europe and, most significantly, double-digit increases in rents and home prices.

The campaign for the sales tax also benefited from specificity. School district leaders were able to pinpoint capital purchases — mostly for air conditioners — that would happen for every school. To win this year’s referendum, supporters will have to convince voters that the district can do a better job overall if it raises employee pay and expands instruction in the arts, electives and career education.

It also comes at a time of transition in the way the district handles money. After years of operational deficits that triggered stern warnings from the state education department, Davis and his chief financial officer say they have found a way to finish the year at break-even and perhaps a modest surplus.

Their formula, they said, combines tight controls on hiring with careful accounting to avoid draining the state-funded budget for expenses that could be paid with federal grants and capital funds. For example: $12 million in bonus pay for teachers at high-poverty schools can be charged to a federal COVID-19 relief fund.

But despite the progress they have made, Davis insisted the district must keep pace with Pinellas, Orange, Sarasota and other districts that benefit from similar taxes. In neighboring Pasco County, a motion to ask voters for the identical property tax increase passed unanimously on Tuesday.

Dissenting votes in Hillsborough came from Melissa Snively, Stacy Hahn and Karen Perez, each for slightly different reasons.

School Board member Melissa Snively
School Board member Melissa Snively [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Snively, who represents conservative East Hillsborough and has not yet said if she will run for reelection, said there is no appetite among her constituents for a tax hike. She also said Davis’ team has not gone far enough to prove it has resolved the district’s budgeting problems.

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She said that during the 2018 campaign to raise the sales tax, superintendent Jeff Eakins spent so much time “on a road show” that classroom instruction suffered. Davis said he would not have that problem. “I will never be outworked,” he said.

Hahn, who is running for reelection, said renters and homeowners already are reeling from escalating housing costs.

School Board member Stacy Hahn
School Board member Stacy Hahn [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“This is not the time to go out to our families and say, ‘We need you to carry this burden,’” Hahn said. “I don’t want our families to feel guilty because they’re choosing to pay their rent and mortgages and put food on the table versus supporting this referendum, this tax increase.”

Perez, also running for reelection, made similar arguments about economic hardship at a board workshop a week ago.

On Tuesday, she added that district leaders are slow to give her clear information about finances. She referred to one document she received from administrators as a “shut-her-up report.”

School Board Member Karen Perez
School Board Member Karen Perez [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Perez suggested that property value increases alone will yield most of the $126 million that the tax would generate. Romaneir Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, said it is not yet possible to know if that is true, as the state can adjust payments despite the rising values.

Firmly in support of the referendum was board member Lynn Gray, who said the district has a responsibility to pay livable wages as the area’s largest employer, even though she also noted that “from the taxpayer point of view, the timing probably couldn’t be worse.”

Also in favor were board chairperson Nadia Combs, who mentioned that her own daughter lost two teachers this year, and Jessica Vaughn, who said voters have a right to decide if they can withstand higher housing costs and if they have confidence in district leadership.

School Board member Henry "Shake" Washington
School Board member Henry "Shake" Washington [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

As for the upcoming campaign, board member Henry “Shake” Washington said, “We just have to do what it takes and convince people that we are transparent and we want to do the right thing for people.”

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