Hillsborough needs new tax to solve teacher shortages, superintendent says

Two years after voters narrowly defeated a special property tax for schools, district officials want to try again with a ballot measure in November.

Tampa Bay Times | By Marlene Sokol | February 27, 2024

Hillsborough County School Superintendent Van Ayres made his case Tuesday for a special property tax that he said would cost the typical homeowner about a dollar a day and give $6,000 raises to teachers and administrators.

The tax, he said, would make salaries competitive with most large Florida school districts, which already levy it. He said he would not ask the public for more money if the need were not severe, and he proposed that it be put before voters in November.

“We have got to start building our bench,” Ayres said, referring to the dwindling ranks of newer teachers. “There is no other way around it. I have teachers who are leaving, I have employees who are going to other counties because they are just looking for 2,000 or 3,000 extra dollars.”

Ayres’ remarks came during a workshop, where the board could not take a formal vote. Most members who spoke favored at least putting the question on the ballot. But it was not clear if that sentiment is unanimous.

The last time Hillsborough attempted a property tax for schools, in 2022, the board was divided 4-3 on the issue and the referendum was narrowly defeated.

Hillsborough voters approved a half-cent sales tax for schools in 2018, but that money was to pay for air conditioning and other capital needs and cannot be used for salaries.

Ayres told board members the property tax is the best way to ease teacher shortages in Hillsborough, estimated at 422 positions. Other jobs going vacant include bus drivers — who also would benefit from the tax— and that shortage is forcing many students to arrive late to school.

The proposed tax would levy $1 on every $1,000 of taxable property value. For a $375,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption, which Ayres described as a typical situation in Hillsborough, it would total $350 a year. Collections would begin in 2025.

The tax would raise an estimated $177 million, of which $26.6 million would go to charter schools, which are publicly funded but operated independently.

Of the remaining $150.4 million, 92% — or $138 million — would boost employee pay.

About $97 million would cover the $6,000 raises for teachers, surpassing starting salaries in all Tampa Bay area school districts except Manatee County. Another $7 million would go toward the $6,000 raises for administrators. The remaining $34.7 million would give $3,000 raises to support employees like bus drivers, aides and cafeteria workers.

About 8% of the revenue would be left for educational programs, including student field trips and a modernization of Nature’s Classroom,an environmental center that dates to 1969. Every high school would have a college and career counselor. And the district would expand sports options.

Ayres noted that capital funding in Florida is based entirely on real estate values. Some districts — including Hillsborough — get a smaller share of money per student, he said.

Funding for day-to-day expenses like salaries follows a different formula designed to give each student an equal share. But districts, he said, have distorted that effect by passing local-option property taxes and leaving Hillsborough behind.

“What has happened over the last 16 years is the issue that Hillsborough County has to address right now.” Ayres told school board members. “It’s not a level playing field any more.”

Board member Jessica Vaughn asked Ayres if some of the money might be used to provide additional services at high-needs schools, and the superintendent said that would be possible if the board desires. He also said he would consider using some of the money to increase pay supplements for teachers at high-poverty schools.

Overall, Vaughn said, “I support this 100 percent.”

Board member Lynn Gray said she would like to see more resources for exceptional student education, but also cautioned against making promises to too many constituencies. “You’re going to have to craft it in a way where we are not too flamboyant and confusing to the public,” she said. She favored placing the measure on the ballot.

Board member Patti Rendon was not at the workshop, but left word that she will review the proposal before taking a position. Member Stacy Hahn was present but did not speak.

Karen Perez, the board chairperson, expressed skepticism and asked how the measure would improve the district’s 31 D and F graded schools. She said some constituents have told her, “these schools are failing their students.”

But she did not directly oppose the tax.

Board members Nadia Combs and Henry “Shake” Washington offered suggestions to run a more effective campaign than the one in 2022. “We have to really sell it,” Washington said.

Ayres said he believes that, unlike two years ago, the district can demonstrate a better record in managing its finances.

Once teetering on insolvency, the district has reduced its staff in recent years by more than 3,000 positions. It is enjoying larger reserves and higher ratings from the investment community.

Staffing, however, remains a problem.In a recent survey by the teachers’ union, most participants agreed that a lack of competitive pay has resulted in teachers leaving the school district.

Many also cited “students late to school because of the bus driver shortage.” Sixty-five percent said they had considered leaving in the past two years and 86% said they knew an employee who had left because of pay.

The Hillsborough Association of School Administrators also conducted a survey. Of those who took part, 94% agreed that because of relatively low pay, there are “administrators leaving for another district, a charter or private school, or leaving the field of education entirely.”

Tuesday’s discussion took place as the Hillsborough County Commission considers renewing its Community Investment Tax, but with a twist: public schools might no longer be a beneficiary.

Ayres and Perez said they have sent a letter to county officials stating the importance of being included in the tax campaign.

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