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County offers to help fix air conditioning crisis in Hillsborough schools

Rust covers the pipes in the air-conditioning pump room at Westchase Elementary School. The district has identified about 40 schools that need major repairs or new systems by 2021. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Rust covers the pipes in the air-conditioning pump room at Westchase Elementary School. The district has identified about 40 schools that need major repairs or new systems by 2021. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Oct. 3, 2018

TAMPA — The text messages from his daughter's middle school about the air-conditioning breaking down have come too often for Commissioner Ken Hagan.

The most recent was Friday: "A/C is down school wide. We'll let you know when it's back up and running."

It's at least the third outage this year at Walker Middle School, one of around 40 schools the cash-strapped district says are in critical need of major repairs or replacement systems by 2021. The repair bill runs upward of $340 million.

RELATED: How Hillsborough's school air conditioning crisis got so bad

Hagan on Wednesday proposed that the county step in to help the district tackle its air-conditioning crisis and pay for other critical maintenance. Commissioners agreed with Hagan's idea that the county offer its AAA bond rating to either borrow money on behalf of the school district or to guarantee bonds issued by the district.

The offer should be made regardless of whether a half-penny referendum to raise money for capital repairs to schools passes on Nov. 6, Hagan said.

"I fully acknowledge the district's funding issues are not our responsibilities," he said. "However, I cannot sit back and ignore the issues facing hundreds of thousands of our children."

Commissioners instructed County Administrator Mike Merrill to meet with Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins to see how the county can help. Among the ideas that may be floated would be to offer property tax credits in lieu of payment to firms that take on school repairs.

Government agencies with higher credit ratings can borrow money at lower interest rates. The county's credit rating is better than the district's.

But school leaders may not see an offer to borrow as very much help.

The district already owes close to $1 billion in mortgages on dozens of schools built between 1997 and 2008. Those obligations take $65 million each year out of the district's capital budget, one of the reasons the district can't afford to keep up with maintenance to buildings and air conditioners.

District spokesman Grayson Kamm said Eakins would be happy to meet with Merrill but stressed that borrowing is not a solution for the funding woes, which he called the result of inadequate state funding.

The district, the eighth largest in the nation, has a $2 billion backlog in maintenance and new construction needs.

Neighboring school districts have approved either sales taxes or special property taxes to put more money into schools, Kamm said.

Hillsborough Public Schools gets only an eighth of a penny from the county Capital Investment Tax, a half-penny sales tax voters approved in 1996. It brings in about $32 million per year.

The half -cent referendum the School Board has put on the Nov. 6 ballot would generate $1.3 billion over 10 years. About $637 million is earmarked for air conditioning systems.

"Borrowed money needs to be repaid," Kamm said. "That's why we need a stream of funding to fix air-conditioners and fix leaky roofs and to create the right learning environment for our children."

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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