Hillsborough superintendent pitches referendum on new school property tax

The School Board will vote next week on the recommendation by district leader Addison Davis.

Tampa Bay Times | By Marlene Sokol | April 12, 2022

Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis on Tuesday recommended that the School Board ask voters to consider a special property tax that would mostly be used for employee pay.

He proposed a tax of $1 for every $1,000 in assessed value, which would raise $126 million a year. Sixteen percent of the proceeds would go to charter schools while the remaining 84 percent would be earmarked for district schools.

Three-quarters of the district share would be used for employees. In addition to raises, there would be more positions to ensure arts and physical education instruction in the elementary years, and programs such as band and orchestra in the older grades. Since cost-cutting measures went into effect in 2021, some of these teachers have had to split their time among multiple schools.

“We are asking the community to step up and really commit to public education,” said Davis, after taking the board through a presentation that compared Hillsborough to other large districts that already collect special property taxes.

That distinction leaves Hillsborough with $11,210 in local and state funding per student — compared to $11,444 in Pinellas and $12,813 in Orange County.

Four of the seven board members, meeting in a workshop, expressed initial support for a referendum on the tax in November. Three board members — Stacy Hahn, Karen Perez and Melissa Snively — said they had serious reservations, arguing that many residents are suffering from soaring housing costs and other inflationary pressures.

The board will vote at its next regular meeting April 19 on whether to go forward with the ballot measure.

If approved, the new tax would follow the passage in 2018 of a half-cent sales surtax for district schools. The sales tax, by law, can be used only for capital expenditures, and the district eased its passage by publishing detailed, school-by-school plans to purchase new air conditioners and other equipment.

But Perez said Tuesday that she does not think the 2018 tax produced enough benefit for the district’s older, urban schools.

The property tax would be similar to those in effect in many counties, including Pinellas, Hernando and Orange counties, and can be used for ongoing expenses such as teacher payroll.

A new School Board advisory board has been studying the budget, which has been problematic for the Hillsborough district for nearly a decade.

Some efficiency studies suggest the district is over-staffed compared to other like-sized districts, and that sloppy hiring created chronic spending imbalances. Payroll costs rose exponentially in 2014, when the district implemented a new pay plan that accompanied a teaching reform experiment underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

While most of the experiment’s new positions were ultimately phased out, deficits and low reserve balances remained a concern, forcing end-of-the-year accounting transfers from the capital fund.

Davis, in his presentation, showed that under his leadership, the district workforce has fallen to 23,815, from a high of 27,377.

But critics point to continued inefficiencies. The district is operating 68 schools that are at least a third empty, as families choose independently run charter schools or state scholarships to private schools instead of their traditional neighborhood schools. After more than a year of conversation, district leaders hired a consultant to study school boundaries. But it could be another year or more before they take any action.

Romaneir Johnson, the district’s new chief operating officer, has been working on a fiscal recovery plan that aims to take Hillsborough from a year-end, money-losing position to a modest surplus. She says she can accomplish this goal through sharper accounting practices — for example, charging some programs to federal anti-poverty grants instead of the overstressed state budget — and tight controls on hiring.

Some of the board members said they want to see details of that plan before they cast their votes on April 19.

Davis, and those who are supporting the tax, said that with so many other large districts collecting special property taxes, Hillsborough will be at a severe disadvantage if it does not follow suit. The proposed ballot language includes the phrase “to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers and staff.”

Davis said he realizes that, at a time of great concern about the rising cost of living, getting voter approval for the tax will not be easy.

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