Hillsborough County School ‘get creative’ as summer renovations begin amid climbing construction costs

As major repairs and renovations began this summer on 20 Hillsborough County schools, the district has been looking at ways to "get creative" with construction costs soaring due to inflation.

During a tour of Bob Martinez Middle School in Lutz, which is among the 20 schools receiving a new air conditioning system this summer, Superintendent Addison Davis discussed the challenges facing the district as it plans future projects.

"We see inflation everywhere," said Davis. "So we're having crucial conversations with vendors being able to be strategic and revisiting our budget in terms of what we can and cannot do, and really having to go back and identify what's our greatest priority."

Infrastructure projects, including the work at Martinez Middle School, are funded by the revenue collected through the half-cent education referendum tax approved by voters in 2018. Davis said the district has spent about $355 million so far, completing hundreds of projects in 80 schools.

READ Fed raises key interest rate in largest hike since 1994

The district has already planned major renovations at repairs at 80 additional schools during the remaining six years that the tax is scheduled to be in place. But as construction costs skyrocket, district leaders are having to make adjustments.

"We literally, internally and with an external third party say, 'Hey, what's the prioritization? What is the most important project we have to do?' Cross-reference those and said, 'all right, these are schools we're going to hit,'" said Chris Farkas, the district's chief operating officer.

Farkas and Davis said items such as new air conditioning systems and school safety and security improvements will always be a priority. But the district may have to find projects that can be delayed until costs begin to decline.

READ Jefferson High Alumni awards more than $240,000 in scholarships over 33 years

The district is also concerned about how much more it'll cost to build the 15 new schools during the next 18 years, which is Superintendent Davis' plan.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, building material costs are up about 20 percent in the last year.

"It [costs] like $30 to $40 million more to build [schools] than we did three or four years ago," said Davis. "That's concerning. If it keeps that pace and it is going to be a trying time to be able to hit all of [our goals] and create all the student stations that we need, especially in South County."

District leaders are also asking voters to approve a one millage increase, which would increase homeowners' property taxes based on the value of their homes. That money would be entirely dedicated to employee salaries.