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New group signals grass roots support for Hillsborough schools sales tax

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, foreground, appeared in June with Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins, right, after the teachers union and the school district reached agreement on a contract. Baxter-Jenkins, who heads the union, now is part of a political action committee supporting a new sales tax for schools. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Sep. 12, 2018

TAMPA — A group of Hillsborough County parents have taken the first step in mobilizing like-minded residents to support a referendum to pay for capital needs in the public schools.

Teachers union leader Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins and public schools advocate Melissa Erickson filed papers Tuesday to form a political action committee called Strengthen our Schools.

Baxter-Jenkins, chairwoman of the committee, is executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. Erickson, the vice chair, is co-founder of the Alliance for Public Schools, which works in several counties to support parent engagement and boost high school graduation rates.

RELATED: More Florida counties are voting to raise local taxes for schools. Is it a message to lawmakers?

Their new committee is the first public sign of grass roots support for the half-cent sales surtax, which will appear on the ballot Nov. 6.

The tax, expected to raise $131 million annually for 10 years, would go toward capital expenditures including air conditioning upgrades, roofs, technology and possibly security. By law the money cannot fund ongoing expenses such as salary, but must purchase items with life expectancies of at least five years.

Officers in Strengthen Our Schools represent communities in South Tampa, Valrico, Carrollwood and elsewhere. Some have years of experience in PTA leadership.

"We're all coming together as parents and activists and people who care about schools," said Baxter-Jenkins, a mother of two in South Tampa. "It isn't simply a union thing. My hope is that we have very broad-based community support."

She said she hopes that by next week, the group will have a website that can accept donations.

"Much of it is small, from parents and supporters," she said, "And hopefully from people who will have the ability to give more."

Baxter-Jenkins said it was too early to indicate whether the group will be able to afford mass mailings or media advertisements.

"TV and mail are pretty expensive in this big an area," she said. "It depends on what kind of money we can raise in a very short period of time."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Two audits seal the deal. Hillsborough will vote on sales taxes for schools, transportation.

While neither side will characterize the situation as a competition, the schools measure will exist on the same ballot with a 1-cent sales surtax to support the county's transportation needs.

Ballot materials for early voting could be distributed in about two weeks, meaning supporters are racing the clock to get the word out before voting begins.

Since the School Board voted on Aug. 24 to pursue the referendum, most communication on the issue has come from the school district. Superintendent Jeff Eakins said he plans to appear at a series of town hall meetings to answer questions about the district finances.

But, by law, the district cannot campaign for the tax hike; it can simply present information.

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

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