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What a half penny sales tax is buying for Hillsborough schools | Jeff Eakins
Voters sent a clear message: Here in Hillsborough, we support public education.

Noise in the hallways at dozens of schools. Giant trucks blocking the bus ramps. Dust and debris littering campuses. These would normally create huge frustrations for school leaders.

But this summer, they were the sights and sounds of a new future being built in Hillsborough County Public Schools.

During this recent school break, workers tackled 102 projects funded by the half penny sales tax for schools that Hillsborough voters approved in November.

Cranes hummed as they hoisted new air conditioners into place, new alarm systems beeped as they passed their tests, and jackhammers thumped as they replaced crumbling outdoor courts with new ones that will last more than a generation.

To me, that’s the most powerful part of November’s Education Referendum: Setting up the right conditions for learning, benefiting our community for decades.

Our first projects began soon after the half penny sales tax took effect in January. Over the summer, we were able to take on the biggest jobs, including A/C replacements, which can involve pulling duct work from ceilings and lifting machinery onto rooftops.

We now have completed 21 air conditioning replacements, with plans to take on approximately 20 each summer as the money comes in from the sales tax — leading to a total of 203 A/C replacements in the next decade. We can’t replace every A/C on day one — the tax revenue comes in monthly installments — but we will finally have the resources over time to address this major challenge.

On top of that, more than a dozen aging roofs have been replaced. We have replaced splintering gym floors; made alarm system upgrades; replaced outdoor courts, playgrounds and tracks -- and much more. So far, our district has received more than $53 million from the half penny sales tax and spent just under $40 million, improving learning conditions in our community’s schools.

Every project is available for you to view in detail at hillsboroughschools.org/citizenoversight and every dollar is reviewed by the independent Citizen Oversight Committee, led by chair Betty Castor and vice chair Sheriff Chad Chronister.

We’re committed to deliver on our #HalfPennyPromise to spend these taxpayer dollars wisely to support our students.

We’re also focused on spending these funds with local businesses as much as possible, to keep energizing our area’s economy.

As of Aug. 21, we have signed contracts with local companies worth $94 million for current and future projects. Currently, $7 out of every $8 we’re spending from the half penny sales tax is going to businesses (large and small) right here in the Tampa Bay area.

It’s important to point out: Our schools still face major funding challenges. Half penny sales tax dollars can be spent only on repairing, improving or building school buildings — not on growing expenses like utility bills and health care costs — and not on much-needed pay for teachers. As we continue to advocate for stronger education funding in Florida, it’s powerful that our county saw the need and stepped up in November to locally invest in our community’s schools.

I personally want to say thank you to our community for investing in our students. It’s incredible to see the difference this is already making for our students and staff, improving their learning environments and working conditions.

I also want to thank our supporters who reached out before the vote and passionately shared why this Education Referendum was so pivotal for our community’s future. To all the teachers, support employees, school administrators, parents, nonprofit partners, union leaders — everyone who spoke up for our students — you have my sincere gratitude.

The referendum results you’re seeing today are the direct result of our community’s belief and trust in the educators and leaders in your schools.

In November, voters made a statement. It’s the loudest single statement in support of public schools I’ve heard in my 31 years with our school district. Voters set a stake in the ground with a clear message: Here in Hillsborough County, we support public education.

As a community, we understand the vital role our schools will play in preparing our children for the challenges of tomorrow, making sure excellent educational opportunities are available for everyone and building a competitive workforce to keep Hillsborough County thriving long into the future.

This investment in students is a legacy our community can be proud of — a legacy that will give the entire Tampa Bay area more strength and confidence as we work together to address the challenges ahead of us.

Jeff Eakins is the superintendent of Hillsborough County public schools.

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