Joe Henderson: Hillsborough voters charted a reasonable path forward with school tax approval

Hillsborough County Public Schools’ Superintendent Jeff Eakins speaks during a September town hall meeting in Tampa. Eakins appeared at some 100 events to make the case for a school sales tax. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Hillsborough County Public Schools’ Superintendent Jeff Eakins speaks during a September town hall meeting in Tampa. Eakins appeared at some 100 events to make the case for a school sales tax. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Nov. 14, 2018

I'll admit to extreme skepticism when the Hillsborough County School Board decided to proceed with a plan to ask voters to approve sales tax increase.

Actually, I initially thought Board members had taken leave of the senses.

Although the cash-strapped district had obvious needs, selling voters on the idea of paying more taxes to provide for things like air conditioning and new roofs on schools was never going to be an easy sell — or so I thought, anyway.

But the measure passed, and rather comfortably, and Superintendent Jeff Eakins deserves his share of the credit for that. Hillsborough voters do, too, but we'll get to that in a minute.

Eakins has been described as a steady hand on the wheel during turbulent times at the district, and that's fair. He is more methodical than flashy, which can sometimes be misinterpreted by those who might like a leader with a little pizzazz.

That's not him.

When there is a major problem, though, Eakins is someone you want on that wall. He looks for solutions more than headlines.

He did that the old-fashioned way by meeting with multiple groups and individuals to drive home what has really been happening to public school funding. It's not the typical "waste, fraud and abuse" argument made by politicians to justify the deep cuts they have steadily delivered to local school districts in the last few years.

Eakins and other school superintendents have been dealing with a systematic drain on their resources by the Republican-led state Legislature, a situation not likely to change once/if Ron DeSantis is certified as the state's next governor.

READ MORE: Florida education news: School funding, board members, student testing and more

Hillsborough joined multiple districts around the state in asking voters to fill in the growing gaps between their needs and available resources. As the person at the top of the depth chart, Eakins had to win that argument.

The solution to the immediate money problem was to get the referendum passed. To do that, Eakins had to come out of his comfort zone a little bit during this critical time and make sure voters understood the depth of the crisis.

Apparently, the message was received. Sweltering classrooms from air-conditioning breakdowns and leaking roofs that were years past prime simply is not acceptable.

The Legislature's strategy is devious when you think about it. The lawmakers behind the strangulation of public schools get to brag that they kept taxes low, all the while knowing districts around the state were going to have to find the money somewhere.

There weren't a lot of choices, but lawmakers clearly weren't interested in providing sufficient help.

READ MORE: Florida voters are saying yes when school districts ask for more money. Is that a good thing?

That's where Hillsborough voters came in.

Nearly 277,000 people, more than 56 percent of those who marked their ballot on this issue, voted to approve the tax.

Couple that with a similar margin to approve the All For Transportation referendum, and the message voters sent was clear. They agree that excellent schools and a decent transportation system are vital to this community, and they were willing to give themselves the highest sales tax in the state, 8.5 percent, to have those things.

Having enough money won't fix every broken air conditioning system immediately, nor will magic patches suddenly appear on leaky roofs.

No one is saying it will.

READ MORE: How Hillsborough sold a school tax in just 10 weeks

At least there is a reasonable path forward now, and it might have been hard to imagine that six months ago.
The timing on all this couldn't be better for a district that has had its share of headaches in the last few years. The new board, seated after the election, can go forward with some certainty about where the money is coming from and what the priorities going forward need to be.

Eakins won't take a bow for that, but maybe he should.