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Hillsborough school district releases referendum wish list

Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins speaks during a town hall meeting Tuesday, one of several to be held to discuss the district's proposed sales tax hike for schools. The measure will be on the Nov. 6 ballot. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins speaks during a town hall meeting Tuesday, one of several to be held to discuss the district's proposed sales tax hike for schools. The measure will be on the Nov. 6 ballot. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Sep. 21, 2018

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District on Friday released a long-awaited, school-by-school list of 1,785 projects to be funded by a proposed half-cent sales tax hike.

The list, now on the district website, includes playgrounds for Anderson Elementary School, carpets and floors for Chiles Elementary, new stage lights and a repaved parking lot for Madison Middle School, and hundreds of air conditioning upgrades countywide.

District spokesman Grayson Kamm said $637 million is earmarked for air conditioning systems. That's nearly half the $1.31 billion the tax would be expected to raise over 10 years.

Voters will decide the question on Nov. 6, and district leaders are racing to publicize their vast infrastructure needs before the election.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins is on a tour of town hall meetings and community appearances that includes appearances this Monday at 6 p.m. at Plant City High, and 7 p.m. Wednesday at South Tampa's Grady Elementary.

Accompanied by leaders of the teachers union, Eakins met Friday with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.

"The referendum really is about how we can garner local investment in our school buildings to optimize learning conditions for our students and teaching conditions for our teachers," he said, shortly before an appearance at Westchase Elementary.

There, officials invited reporters to photograph playground and air conditioning equipment that the tax money would replace.

The district has committed to spending at least $500,000 at each of its 230 schools.

Oversight would come from a committee headed by former state education commissioner Betty Castor. The rest of that committee has not been selected yet, but district officials said it will comply with the state's public meetings law.

The referendum campaign, led by the teachers union, PTAs and the Alliance for Public Schools, comes as the district is fielding thousands of trouble calls about broken air conditioners.

Temperatures are well above 80 degrees in many classrooms, with some nurses sending students home after they are overcome by the heat.

"It's just not acceptable for me, as a superintendent, to look at this any longer," Eakins told the Times. "Our kids can't be in these conditions any longer. Our teachers can't be in these conditions any longer."

However, he pointed out, air conditioning overhauls can happen only in the summer, when school is out.

When asked what the district will do if the referendum fails, Eakins said he will look into creative financing arrangements that some businesses have pitched — for example, there are companies that will buy the equipment and allow the district to lease it back. The companies make their money off energy savings.

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Eakins said that even if the referendum passes, he might still explore some of these arrangements to speed up the process of cooling down schools.

The tax would sunset around the time the district emerges from a mountain of debt it took on to build close to 70 schools in the 1990s and early 2000s. Repaying that debt costs $65 million a year, which comes out of capital funds and hurts the district's ability to take care of its facilities.

At the town hall meetings, people both for and against charter schools, which are funded publicly but managed independently, have asked how that sector will be treated.

The spending plan leaves roughly $11 million unaccounted for, and charter schools can ask for some of that money.

But, Eakins said Friday, the charter schools must own their buildings, which is true for only a few. And they must show deferred maintenance needs that they cannot cover with existing state funding.

Also of concern to town hall participants so far is whether the money will be used to build new schools while their own neighborhood schools are crumbling.

A recent consultant's study showed Hillsborough will need at least 32 new schools, mostly in the southern part of the county, to accommodate growth over the next 15 years.

The plan allots $155 million for new schools. Eakins said if the referendum money comes through, it would be put toward four schools in South Hillsborough.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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