The Hillsborough County school district is asking voters in the Aug. 23 primary to approve an additional tax for school operations. We have long supported such key investments in this community. But the district has work to do in restoring public trust in its financial management. A “no” vote would reinforce the need for accountability while leaving a window open to return the issue to the voters in 2024.
The school board voted 4-3 in April to put the referendum on the ballot, asking voters to raise their property taxes by an additional $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value. The levy would begin in July 2023 and remain in effect for four years, after which the district could seek voter approval for an extension. The tax would raise about $146 million annually, with the majority going to salary increases for teachers and support staff. The district would also spend millions each year to boost arts, music, physical education, workforce training and other programs.
Officials say the tax is essential for recruiting and retaining talented teachers. Twenty-two other Florida school districts, including several in the Tampa Bay area, already levy an additional property tax. Hillsborough said the levy would help it compete, especially as more teachers leave the profession for better options in a tight labor market.
With nearly 24,000 employees, the district is Hillsborough’s largest employer, and staffing its many moving parts across a big, growing county is understandably challenging. Ninety cents of every dollar the district spends goes to salaries and benefits. Channeling this proposed tax to employees should build a stronger, more committed workforce. If morale and motivation are gasoline to the classroom, the tax could help by attracting the best and brightest. Who can downplay the impact of one good teacher? It doesn’t help that school districts are forced to go it alone because Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee fund education on the cheap. That mentality is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Still, this tax request is premature. For nearly a decade, the Hillsborough school district routinely spent more than it raised in revenue, using internal transfers and cash reserves to cover a half-billion dollar deficit. Superintendent Addison Davis has made headway in controlling costs since the district hired him in 2020. He has cut positions, imposed new spending controls and taken steps to balance the budget, from renegotiating contracts to exploring ways to better commercialize school sports and facilities. But those reforms need to take root before the district asks taxpayers for more. Voters need a track record that demonstrates a fundamental change, and stronger signs that this turnaround will endure.
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The district needs to continue work on right-sizing the workforce and generating new revenue streams. It is only now examining what to do with scores of school campuses operating at two-thirds or less capacity. A consultant’s report on underused schools is expected in January, but any response — closing, consolidating or repurposing campuses — is likely many months, if not longer, away. In short, the district still has remedies worth exploring before asking for more money.
Davis maintains the district can survive with or without the tax, and he insists the reforms will keep Hillsborough’s cash reserves above the 3% state-mandated minimum. The district also plans to use hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID relief to bolster the budget through 2024. By its own assurances, the district is not in such dire financial straits that voters need to authorize a new tax immediately. If anything, the next 12 to 15 months should provide a clearer picture of whether this recovery plan will work. Voters can use that time to make a more informed decision.
We take no pleasure in recommending a “no” vote. The Tampa Bay Times has long championed public education in Florida. We have supported the additional property tax to supplement the Pinellas County schools, and we supported the Hillsborough sales surtax in 2018 to fund school repairs and improvements. Over the past three decades in Hillsborough alone, we have supported higher taxes for schools, transportation and indigent health care, along with dedicated funding for housing and environmental lands. We supported those initiatives after being satisfied their purpose was compelling, the time was right and that they would significantly improve the region’s quality of life. We want to say yes, but on this tax, we are not there yet.
To that point, the lack of any meaningful public engagement on the referendum is puzzling and disappointing. Flying under the radar may be a good way to avoid opposition. But this is a major decision facing county voters, and a pocketbook issue for hundreds of thousands of residents. Tax proponents had an obligation to wage a more public case. If anything, given rising housing costs, surging inflation and recessionary fears, this referendum should have received heightened scrutiny. This inattention to the sacrifice that voters are asked to make doesn’t help build a partnership with the school system.
The board’s split vote on seeking a referendum reflects how some of those closest to the school system are uneasy with the timing. Luckily, the district has breathing space, a financial hedge thanks to federal relief and the start of more fiscal discipline. That’s a credit to Davis. We have confidence in the superintendent. His strengths as a leader have become more apparent as life has returned from the COVID bubble. If Hillsborough continues to repair its finances, and still needs the money, it will be positioned to make a stronger case in 2024, enabling taxpayers to vote with both their hearts and their heads.
In the Hillsborough school tax referendum on the Aug. 23 ballot, the Tampa Bay Times recommends a “no” vote.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.