The Hillsborough County School Board did not help students, their families, teachers or taxpayers Friday by ramming through a half-baked measure calling for a sales tax referendum in November. There is no doubt the cash-strapped school district needs more money or that state lawmakers have underfunded the public schools for years. But this is a spiteful, desperate effort that has no plan, no organization and no message behind it, and the board was reckless to rush the campaign.
The board voted 5-2 during a special meeting Friday to seek a referendum Nov. 6 calling for a half-cent sales tax that would pay for capital needs, from school repairs and new construction to technology. Officials estimate the district has $3 billion or more in outstanding mortgage debt, new school construction needs and deferred maintenance. They blame inadequate funding from Tallahassee for being forced to seek a new revenue source at the local level.
All of that may be fine. But it ignores exactly how the district found itself in financial crisis, and even more importantly, how unfit and unprepared this board is to launch a winning campaign in such a short period of time. Board members had a lot to say on Friday. Left unmentioned was their culpability in the making of the crisis by being asleep at the wheel as the district over-spent, and by refusing to insist on more aggressive steps to rein in the budget.
Board chairwoman Sally Harris said the district "inherited" the budget shortfall. That fiction set the tone for more than an hour of moralizing by board members who pointed their fingers at the state, past employees, the media and anyone else they could think of to blame for the bleak finances and the district’s poor public image.
If Friday’s meeting was any measure, this campaign is off to a pathetic start. The board voted for a November referendum if it can overcome several key legal hurdles in the coming days, and a March election as a backup. It also changed plans and called for a 10-year tax instead of a 20-year tax that had been on the table. The rush was in response to the work of a citizens group that put a transportation referendum on the November ballot. The School Board is afraid of losing its shot at money by going in March, so it is willing to put a badly needed transportation package at risk. Getting voters in this climate to raise one tax at a time is tough enough. If both passed, Hillsborough would have the highest sales tax rate in Florida. Cue the opposition.
School Board member April Griffin took the cake. Griffin, who is stepping down after elections in November, took a parting shot by blaming the transportation group (which made the ballot by having its act together) for competing with the schools for public support. She said conservative voters in east county should realize that the transportation package "won’t provide" the relief they need. Who is really pitting people against each other?
There is a big difference between agreeing the schools need additional revenue and waging a winning campaign. Mail ballots go out for the November general election as early as Oct. 2. This board is trying to fabricate a fix in six weeks to a crisis that was years in the making.
It would be a gift if Hillsborough County commissioners or state auditors, who have a role in scheduling this election, slow down the process. School Board members are kidding themselves if they think the public trusts the district to manage even more money — and slapping together a last-minute, ill-defined tax proposal won’t build trust. This was a cynical move that reinforces what people hate about government. The district should have taken its time.