TAMPA — Betty Castor, long-time educator and former president of the University of South Florida, will head up a committee charged with ensuring responsible spending of a sales-tax hike for Hillsborough public schools improvements if voters approve the measure Nov. 6.
Castor was announced as head of the Citizens Oversight Committee during a news conference Monday morning at Jefferson High School.
The School Board voted Aug. 24 to place the proposal to raise the sales tax half a cent per dollar on the ballot. Since then, district leaders and supporters of the move have been scrambling to get the word out about the measure and why schools need the money.
Proceeds would be used for capital improvements, such as new buildings in Hillsborough's fast-growing suburbs or air conditioning upgrades to provide relief for students who are experiencing stifling classroom conditions. They cannot be used for ongoing expenses, such as salary.
District officials estimate the tax will raise $131 million a year for 10 years.
Castor will serve as chairwoman of the oversight committee — six private citizens and one district leader who will review spending, progress and completion of all projects funded by the sales-tax referendum. Castor will lead the selection of the other five citizen members. Nominations from the public can be submitted at hillsboroughschools.org or in person at 901 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.
The six citizens cannot be affiliated with the district and cannot work on projects funded by the referendum.
"This is an important opportunity to help Hillsborough County Public Schools begin the rebuilding of its infrastructure," Castor said Monday, "and address essential areas like air conditioning, technology for career and technical programs, and enhancing safety on campuses."
She added, "I know the importance of the children in our community and making sure every penny of these referendum funds will be spent to benefit students."
Castor spent her career in government service and as a champion for all children.
From her start as a teacher in South Florida, she rose to serve as the president of USF and twice was elected the state commissioner of education. She was the first woman elected to the Hillsborough County Commission and the Florida Cabinet.
She was also a three-term member of the Florida Senate, where she co-sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment and championed bills to fund early childhood education.
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Jeff Eakins, Hillsborough schools superintendent, said at Monday's news conference that the school district this week will release a school-by-school list of projects to be funded with proceeds from the sales tax hike.
"The Citizen Oversight Committee will give the public confidence that the important work on that list will be completed properly, and our students, teachers and staff will benefit," Eakins said.
The schools measure is one of two proposed sales tax hikes that Hillsborough voters will decide in the Nov. 6 general election. Also on the ballot is a one-cent sales tax hike to pay for transportation improvements.
School leaders had planned to pursue their referendum in March, thinking they would have to wait beyond Nov. 6 for a state audit that is required under a new law. But the timetable changed when the legislature's Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability said it could finish the audit more quickly.
The audit report, while mostly favorable, calls the district out for having a high number of vacancies in its maintenance department. That labor shortage makes it difficult to schedule preventative maintenance work that would keep equipment such as air conditioners in good working order.
Eakins plans a series of town hall meetings to discuss school needs and the referendum. The first one will begin 6 p.m. Tuesday at South Tampa Fellowship, Ballast Point Campus, 501 Bayshore Blvd.