Voters will decide on HCPS’ sales tax referendum this fall
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Many students hear the word referendum and draw a blank, or if they remember it at all, it is as a footnote from civics class: legislation that citizens can directly vote on in an election. However, there is a new referendum on the ballot this November that could have a direct impact on Robinson students.
Residents of Hillsborough County will be able to vote on a referendum to increase sales tax by half a cent for every dollar for the next 10 years in order to generate new funding for public schools. According to the district, the referendum will cost $63 per family per year, and will raise $131 million in revenue per year.
Members of Hillsborough County’s administration and school board are holding series of a town hall meetings to educate voters about the referendum.
From the 1990s to the early 2000s, Hillsborough county went through a period of population growth that the school district responded to with the construction of new schools. Even now, the county is still paying off the mortgages of those school buildings.
“We took on the burden of that growth and we’re still paying back for those buildings to this day.” Superintendent Jeff Eakins said.
Hillsborough county’s struggles with an insufficient budget were cemented in 2011, when the national economic recession led the Florida government to take funds used for Hillsborough County public school buildings and place in it the state of Florida’s overall education budget.
Additional cuts by the state government to public education haven’t helped. As of right now, the state of Florida ranks 44th in the country in public education funding, and the state legislature only approved a 47 cent increase in per-student funding for the 2018-19 school year.
Last year, the school district’s financial troubles made headlines when it decided to withhold teacher raises. However, the money raised by the referendum would not go to teachers’ salaries, which are part of the district’s operating budget. Instead, those funds would become part of the district’s capital budget, which includes campus maintenance, technology upgrades, and improvements in school security.
“We want to make sure you have the best learning conditions in your classrooms and that our teachers have the very best teaching conditions,” Eakins said.
Many schools in Hillsborough County are currently without air conditioning, including neighboring Plant High School. As a result of the lack of capital budget, AC systems that break are repaired by the district only to break again in a cycle that has lasted years. With funds raised by the referendum, the district hopes to replace air conditioning systems in 40 schools.
The district’s decision to ask for a referendum is also necessitated by Hillsborough County’s expanding population. Many schools in the county are overcrowded, and the district is considering opening 32 new schools in South Hillsborough County.
However, without the passage of the referendum, the district will have a difficult time finding the funds to address maintenance problems in its present, much less its future.
“We have about 70 million dollars left to take care of twenty six million square feet across Hillsborough County,” Eakins said.
There is also a referendum on the ballot this November to raise the sales tax by one cent for every dollar in order to raise money for Tampa’s transportation network. Although there is nothing to stop citizens from voting for both referendums, some worry that people will be unlikely to support two sales tax increases at a time.
However, Eakins has reason to hope that the referendum will pass, citing the 12 education-related referendums passed by other Florida counties as proof that public opinion is behind a sales tax hike.
“Every growing district… have all had to do the same kind of referendum to their communities,” Eakins said. Orange County, Manatee County, and Polk County are just a few of many neighboring counties that have already passed sales tax referendums for their school districts.
Thomas Dusold is a Robinson teacher who attended a town hall meeting Tuesday night. “I think we need this. I mean, all you have to do is look for the numbers, and the numbers speak for themselves,” Dusold said.
However, Dusold does have some concerns about how the funds raised by the referendum will be allocated. “I think the biggest question that a lot of people have is are we going to spend that money where it needs to be spent, not on new projects, but on things that we need,” He said.
This echoes a common critique of the referendum, that the district has not yet released a list specifically detailing how and where money will be spent. Eakins attempted to address apprehension at the town hall by assuring voters that spending would be overseen by a committee of private citizens headed up by Betty Castor, former president of the University of South Florida.
Every public school in Hillsborough County will soon receive a detailed report from the district telling them what funds their school will be given.
Citizens will have the opportunity to vote on the referendum when early voting begins October 22nd. When it comes down to it, voters will have to look at the conditions of Hillsborough County Public schools and ask themselves- is it worth it?