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Tampa Bay school officials walk a fine line when discussing proposed taxes

Is it political pressure to tell voters the money is needed to hire and retain teachers?
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis addresses an audience on July 13, 2022, at Armwood High about the proposed special property tax for schools on the Aug. 23 ballot.
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis addresses an audience on July 13, 2022, at Armwood High about the proposed special property tax for schools on the Aug. 23 ballot. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]
Published Aug. 22|Updated Aug. 23

The information campaign began soon after Hillsborough County School Board members agreed 4-3 in April to ask voters for a new property tax.

Superintendent Addison Davis met with district leaders and school principals. His communications team got involved. Senior staff attended public meetings through the summer.

That led to Sunday evening, when a message went out by phone and email to parents at Plant High School, reminding them that Tuesday is election day.

Parents were told about the proposed tax of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value, which would be used to raise pay for employees. “Twenty-one school districts in the state have a voter-approved increased millage, including nearly all the surrounding counties,” the message said.

“Our district does not — and is losing teachers, administrators, and support staff to these neighboring districts because they can pay more.”

Like many other Florida districts, including neighboring Pasco County, Hillsborough is threading a needle when it comes to communicating about the proposed tax.

Government agencies generally are not supposed to use tax dollars for political purposes, including advocating for higher taxes.

It would be wrong, then, for Davis or Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning to ask the public to vote “yes” on the referendum.

They are, however, allowed to disseminate information if it is factual and neutral.

Is it OK to tell the public that teacher shortages will get worse without the new tax? Hillsborough school officials maintain that it is.

A similar scenario existed in 2018, when Hillsborough voters were asked to approve a half-cent sales tax for capital purchases such as air conditioners.

Then-superintendent Jeff Eakins met with community groups in churches and schools to tell them about the district’s needs. He focused on the shortfall of funding from the state, often omitting any mention of missteps the district had taken that contributed to the air conditioning failures.

Jeff Eakins, then the Hillsborough County school superintendent, spoke during a 2018 town hall about a sales tax referendum for schools. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times (2018)]
Jeff Eakins, then the Hillsborough County school superintendent, spoke during a 2018 town hall about a sales tax referendum for schools. [CHRIS URSO | Times (2018)]

The measure passed with 56% of the vote.

Four years later, the blurry line between campaigning and informing continues to raise questions.

Is it appropriate to rely on district employees as “boots on the ground” messengers, as Davis has called them, when he is their boss? Teachers have a monetary incentive to support the tax, as it would raise their pay.

In communication from both the Pasco and Hillsborough districts, the tone has been urgent in the weeks before the election, with only muted criticism of state government for not providing more funding in the first place.

Officials explain the many ways the state budget system works against school funding, even at a time when it would appear schools would see a windfall from rising property values.

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Related: If property taxes are soaring, why do school districts need more money?

They paint their dilemma like a kind of arms race. They warn voters that if other districts raise property taxes and they do not follow suit, the others will steal the best teachers.

Printed materials and scripts for the outgoing messages are given to principals, who have the option of using them.

As district employees, do principals feel compelled to send those messages?

“I think when something is optional, it’s optional,” said Hillsborough School Board Attorney Jim Porter, who noted that principals in 2021 felt comfortable pushing back against Davis’ management style.

In Pasco, public information officer Stephen Hegarty said district leaders are not only allowed to disseminate information that helps voters understand the tax, but it is their responsibility.

“Somebody had to let people know what’s going on,” he said.

Pasco began its campaign with a group of retired educators leading the effort. In doing so, they sent a message that the tax was endorsed by people who did not work for the school system.

A meeting in Wesley Chapel's Seven Oaks community to discuss a proposed property tax to benefit the Pasco County Schools on May 26, 2022.
A meeting in Wesley Chapel's Seven Oaks community to discuss a proposed property tax to benefit the Pasco County Schools on May 26, 2022. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]

However, Browning has not shied away from the issue. He can be seen on the district website stating in a video message that “other school districts have already taken this step. Now it’s time for us to take action.”

Hillsborough was slower to enlist a political action committee, Stronger Classrooms for Our Future. Unlike Lift Up Pasco Schools, which has logged more than 100 contributions of various sizes, the Hillsborough committee received 14 contributions with most of the money coming in big checks from businesses, business leaders and other political action committees.

Hillsborough schools spokesperson Tanya Arja issued a brief written statement Monday about her district’s efforts.

“Hillsborough County Public Schools has been educating the public,” it said. “And under state law, school districts can provide factual information about the referendum.”

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