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Carlton: Just when you thought a transportation tax might float with voters, the school board tips the boat

Cars sit locked in evening rush hour traffic on Dale Mabry Highway near Raymond James Stadium.  [ZACK WITTMAN  |  Times]
Cars sit locked in evening rush hour traffic on Dale Mabry Highway near Raymond James Stadium. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Sep. 4, 2018

Members of the Hillsborough County School Board live in, you guessed it, Hillsborough County. Presumably they have driven its highways, county roads and city streets, ridden over its bridges and perpetual potholes and found themselves stuck in traffic like the rest of us.

So it's a good bet School Board members know firsthand how far behind this county is in getting the serious transportation improvements we've needed for a long time.

School Board members also are probably up to speed on our history of failed attempts to get politicians and voters to agree to pony up for better bus, road and transit options. And no doubt they've read recent headlines about a group called All for Transportation successfully collecting tens of thousands of citizen signatures to get a penny sales tax for transportation proposal on the November ballot.

Even so, a majority of the School Board that lives, drives and presumably wants things to get better here just voted to shove through their own desperate proposal for a half-cent tax referendum for education on the same ballot — a move that could doom both efforts with wary taxpayers.

No question, Hillsborough schools are in dire straits. On the first day of school alone, 159 schools submitted maintenance requests to fix ailing air conditioning systems. The district's current woes over new construction, deferred maintenance and existing debt could total $4 billion.

But board members, being politicians too, surely know asking voters to increase the sales tax is a delicately dicey prospect, even when you spell out sensible details — like 55 percent of the penny tax increase for transportation going to the county and three cities in it for road improvements, the rest for expanded bus service and transit.

But two taxes? Including one from a school district that hasn't exactly looked steady, deliberate or even-keeled? The anti-tax crowd must be high-fiving all around about the pushback that separate efforts could generate. And no one would be surprised to see both go down in flames.

The School Board has options.

Board members could put their referendum on the March ballot during the Tampa mayor and City Council elections — though the district could then incur the cost of opening up voting in the county, about $900,000.

There's also an all-vote-by-mail option countywide — and the School Board could even pick the date — for about $400,000. And their education cause wouldn't get lost in the noise of the big November ballot.

Not that transportation is more important than education. Both are quality of life issues, part of the region's serious needs. But the School Board's desperate scramble has the distinct air of someone sinking and taking everyone else down, too.

Now the hopeful part.

Already this election season has a different flavor. The surprise of unrepentantly liberal Andrew Gillum rallying Democrats to win the party's nomination for governor over a more middle-of-the-road candidate is adding energy. Maybe that momentum gets out Democrats who are more likely to vote yes on the referendum.

Referendums plural, even.

Here's hoping School Board members didn't doom transportation improvement where they, by the way, live too.