At a town hall early this month at Tampa's Pizzo Elementary, Hillsborough School Superintendent Jeff Eakins said the district was out of options and had to go for a sales tax.
"I can't have the school board raise our taxes, they can't do that. Remember the state doesn't give us money, can't do that, so other two options are borrow and referendum," Eakins said. "Well, the borrow option we've already done. Matter of fact, we've borrowed so much we have very little left in that blue bucket (the capital funding budget) in order to take care of the facilities we have."
Eakins said it costs about $3 million to replace the air conditioner at an elementary school. The cost is higher for middle and high schools.
They're asking for a half-penny sales tax, which school officials say will generate $131 million dollars every year for ten years, the lifespan of the sales tax. In that time, Eakins said the district would be able to pay off the 70 or so mortgages on new construction from a period of growth many years ago, get out of debt and fund many maintenance projects that have been deferred.
According to information from Hillsborough County Schools, revenue from the half-penny sales tax would only go toward A/C and maintenance, classroom technology, school security, which includes alarm systems which would summon emergency responders more quickly, and new school construction.
Eakins said all of this is needed because of something the state did back in 2008, after the Great Recession hit.
That's when the state cut funding to Florida school districts by taking back half a million in property taxes to fund the state education budget. Eakins said that loss has left a gaping hole in the maintenance budget.
"So over the course from 2008-2018, we've lost about $407 million dollars that would have come into that bucket to use to take care of our facilities, and we haven't received it," Eakins said. "What happens when you run out of money and you have needs that are building and building?"
And that, he said, is why Hillsborough Schools have $1 billion dollars in deferred maintenance.
The district also expects to spend $1 billion dollars to fund new schools to accomodate anticipated growth.
Two Hillsborough County School Board members voted against putting the referendum on this November's ballot, because of timing and concerns that the district needed to demonstrate it could better spend the money it already had.
If the measure passes, an unpaid citizen oversight committee lead by former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor, who is also the former University of South Florida President, will review spending and any work done.