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Hillsborough School Board puts property tax referendum on ballot despite citizen objections

Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis
Hillsborough County Public Schools
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Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis advocated for the referendum throughout the meeting

Hillsborough County voters will consider a tax referendum for schools on the August ballot, while Pasco voters will face a similar question in November.

The Hillsborough County School Board approved a recommendation Tuesday that will place a property tax referendum on the August primary election ballot.

Pasco County voters will face a similar question later this year.

By a 4-3 vote, Hillsborough school board members approved a proposal that would see Hillsborough property owners pay an additional $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value.

The projected amount of revenue for district-managed schools from the referendum would be about $106 million a year, with $20 million a year going to charter schools.

“Every student within Hillsborough County would be positively impacted financially,” said Superintendent Addison Davis, who explained that he wanted the referendum due to the district’s dire need for resources.

“We already have so many of our students that are not being served by a highly qualified teacher, and we need to go ahead and know what the plan will be for being able to properly compensate all of our employees,” he said.

Davis has previously said funds raised by the referendum would go to increasing employee pay and improving student programs.

Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, board member Karen Perez proposed moving the referendum from the primary to November’s general election.

Board member Jessica Vaughn agreed, saying there was not ample time for discussion and voter engagement if the proposal was placed on the primary election ballot.

“In the spirit of making sure that this is fully democratic and we’re engaging and allowing as many voters as possible to participate, I would also like this moved to the November election,” she said.

But Vaughn and Perez were outvoted 5-2 on the matter.

Many members of the public who shared comments with the board objected to the referendum all together.

Jason Ferger said that there is a large lack of transparency when it comes to how the district uses taxes already.

“Where is the transparency and trust being built within this community? Just vote no,” he said.

Voters previously approved a half-cent sales surtax in 2018 that was designed to renovate existing schools, but board members expressed concerns at last week’s meeting over how that’s working out.

Allison Fernandez said that while she is not against additional funding, she would want more serious and in-depth discussion before supporting a millage increase.

“This is my money,” she said. “This is the public’s money. We want to know that you’re using it properly, that you are using it to its best and highest purpose because you’re asking for more.”

And Elizabeth Thomas pointed to a petition parents have created with nearly 500 signatures of people who have “no confidence” in the School Board’s leadership team.

“You chose to ignore us, which goes beyond violating an emergency rule but further demonstrates your disregard for those that have entrusted you,” she said.

Vaughn echoed the public’s concerns, arguing that the board should be more conscious about how they are communicating with the public when it comes to the district’s finances.

“When I hear my fellow board members talk about making sure that we’re conveying to the public that we’re being fully transparent and fiscal oversight, we are the fiscal oversight,” she said. “That is primarily what our job is to do: to make sure that everything we’re doing is balancing the budget.”

But Vaughn ended up voting in favor of putting the referendum on the ballot, with school board members Melissa Snively, Stacy Hahn, and Karen Perez voting no.

Hahn pointed to inflation and the potential effects increased taxes would have on the housing affordability crisis.

“You can’t talk about the affordable housing crisis on one hand and then say you’re going to raise property taxes on the other, because those raises in property taxes directly impact what the renters’ market is going to be,” she said.

And while board member Lynn Gray voted yes on the referendum, citing the need to raise teacher salaries, she acknowledged the burden on the public.

“From the taxpayer point of view, the timing couldn’t be worse,” she said.

If approved in the Aug. 23 primary, Davis said Hillsborough would join 21 other Florida school districts that have increased millage rates as an additional revenue source beyond state funding.

That list may also soon include Pasco County.

The Tampa Bay Times reports the school board there unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday calling for a November referendum that would also raise the tax rate by up to $1 per $1,000 of taxable value.

School officials estimate it would raise up to $37 million a year that would go toward employee salaries. The rate increase would be in effect for four years.

I am WUSF’s Rush Family Radio News Intern for spring 2022.