Hillsborough superintendent proposes special property tax for schools

Hillsborough County School Superintendent Addison Davis asked a district advisory committee to consider supporting a special property tax for schools and make a decision quickly.

“The sooner the better,” he said.

The Citizens Budget Committee, which formed last summer to advise the school board, listened to Davis at its meeting Wednesday night but did not make a formal decision. Some members said they agreed with the need for a levy, though one questioned whether the school district had the credibility it needed to ask for more money. Others wanted simpler financial information.

Davis proposed asking voters for a tax of $1 for every $1,000 of real estate value, above the local impact tax rate already set by the state. This equates to an additional $200 for a home valued at $200,000 after applying the homestead exemption.

Davis said that at a time when there were 4,100 teaching vacancies statewide, the new money “would really allow us to focus on recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce. , so that we can properly compensate all our employees”.

Small schools would have their own music and art teachers instead of sharing them, he said. More mental health counselors could be hired. And the district would have better funding for equipment needed for science, technology, engineering, and math programs, and to meet the needs of children who learn visually.

Unfunded or partially funded state mandates are also a problem. For example, Davis said, the state provides $10 million a year for safety and security measures that were enshrined in law after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. To comply with those mandates, he said, the district must spend $23 million.

The proposed tax, which voters would be asked to renew every four years, would raise about $126 million a year to fill spending gaps that have soared to nearly $100 million. That shortfall this year is expected to reach $111 million if the district does not implement substantial spending cuts.

Two districts in the Tampa Bay area have a special property tax for schools. Voters in Pinellas County approved one in 2004 and have renewed it every four years since, with 80% voting for it in the November 2020 election. Voters in Hernando County approved their special school tax for the first time in 2020.

In Hillsborough, a third big package of COVID-19 relief money is expected from the federal government and has not been reflected in budget projections. This money will fill the main reserve, which again risks falling below the levels required by the state. But that won’t solve the spending deficit.

The reserve is a point of contention between the district and its teachers, who have no current contract for more than half of the school year. Union leaders have argued that, given a level of state funding they say is insufficient, the district should not keep money in reserve that could be spent on schools.

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Related: Still no movement in Hillsborough teacher pay talks

But district leaders say a healthy reserve is needed in the event of a catastrophic event, such as a hurricane. The $147 million reserve the district posted when it closed the books in June might seem like a lot of money, budget officer Susan Garcia said. But that “wouldn’t be enough to pay our bills for a month.”

It wouldn’t satisfy the investment community either. In recent years, the district has seen its credit ratings plummet due to spending shortfalls and low reserves, and those lower ratings make it harder to borrow.

Budget officials have warned that if the reserve falls low enough — especially the part not earmarked for specific types of spending — the district could once again find itself in danger of a financial takeover by the state.

Related: Would Hillsborough voters approve of a special school tax? The debate begins.

The citizens’ committee has spent the last few months gathering information on finances and is now forming sub-committees to investigate specific topics such as staffing, which consumes by far the largest share of a budget of over of $3 billion.

Some committee members said they weren’t sure Davis wanted to pass on the property tax in time to have him on the November ballot. But in a later text Tampa Bay Times, Davis said, “I think it’s necessary to do that.”

If the tax is approved, collections would begin in 2023, which means the district still has to cut costs and wait for COVID-19 money to come through the current budget year.

As for the political viability of passing such a tax, Davis said he expects voters to be encouraged by the new half-cent sales tax, which he believes will has been spent responsibly on air conditioning and other infrastructure projects.

The committee will then meet in early March.

Penny D. Jackson