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Three School Districts Make The Case For A Sales Tax

Oct 22, 2018

This year, there have been stories of schoolchildren being sent home because of blistering heat in classrooms where the air conditioning is either broken or on the way out.

The Hillsborough School District recently had to replace the air conditioning at Tampa's Gorrie Elementary, a 19th Century building, and the oldest elementary school that's still in use in Florida.

The price tag for that repair was $3 million. It costs even more at middle and high schools.

There've been newspaper pictures of sagging ceilings. Now, three school districts in Florida say it's time to find a new source of revenue to create the right climate for learning in the classroom, that's why they are hoping for an increase in the local sales tax. 

School officials can't directly advocate for this new half-penny sales tax, but they can explain why it's needed. Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins did just that weeks ago at a townhall at Tampa's Pizzo Elementary School.

Eakins is a former elementary school teacher, so he broke the story down into four parts. It laid out how the district came to a point of having a billion dollars in deferred maintenance and a billion dollars wanting to deal with expected growth.

Eakins has been busy telling anyone who will listen why now is the time for this sales tax in Hillsborough County. "We know the only way we can do this is to go out to our community," he said. Because the school board can't raise taxes and the state doesn't send you money to build new schools.

It's a problem Lee County is wrestling with as well.

"The biggest chunk of revenue that we lost is as a result of the state decreasing our ability to charge millage," said School Board member Chris Patricca. "So about 10 years ago, they decreased our capital millage rate from 2.0 to 1.5. And that has had very serious, very negative effects on our capital funding."

To the northeast about 250 miles away in Alachua County, newly-elected School Board member Tina Certain has specific ideas about how to spend new revenue.

"The need is there, it's great," she said. "We just want to make sure that we're equitably spending the money around the county, so that all students benefit. And not just benefit from patching of roofs and repairing ACs, because I think we want to have new facilities all around the county."

Eakins compared Hillsborough County's tax revenue from a long-ago passed Community Investment Tax, which yields about one-eighth of a penny to the revenue Orange County's school district gets. Orange County is about equal to the size of Hillsborough. And that district has not only a half-penny sales tax, but a full one mil in property tax revenue to spend. Eakins said his district has stretched capital funding to its limit and this sales half-penny sales tax will help the district grow into the future.

He also reminded the folks gathered at the town hall that schools have to be hardened against hurricanes. He said Hillsborough Schools served as shelters for 30,000 residents when Hurricane Irma tore through the state in September of 2017.

All three school districts say with a long midterm ballot, they're worried voters will give up before they even get to see the tax referendum. So, Lee County's Patricca said voters should remember the words of St. Matthew, that 'the last shall be first and,' she said, "take that ballot, turn it all the way to the end, vote yes for the half-penny sales tax and then turn your attention to less important things like senator and governor." 

If passed, the sales tax will sunset in 10 years in Hillsborough and Lee Counties, 12 in Alachua.

A Hillsborough Schools spokesman says there are no good alternatives if this half-penny referendum doesn't pass.  In Lee County, their back-up plan is double sesssions — something Patricca says will cost more in the long run. And in Alachua County, the status quo is the Plan B.

Palm Beach County is also asking voters to approve a one mill property tax increase to fund higher pay for teachers and enhance school security. 

WUFT's Ryan Vasquez contributed to this report.