Hillsborough County Schools want voters to decide on property tax increase to fund education

While the cost of just about everything has gone up the state's school funding allocations haven't, which Hillsborough district officials say has caused an annual budget crisis. Soon, the Hillsborough School District may be asking voters to keep it funded.  

"While the cost of living and inflation has risen dramatically in the last decade, funding for education has remained largely stagnant in Florida," said Hillsborough Superintendent Addison Davis in a statement. 

Davis is proposing a voter referendum for an additional millage on property taxes. It would equate to $1 per $1,000 of assessed home value. For a $200,000, that would mean an additional $200 in taxes. 

Other counties across Florida including Pinellas, Hernando, Manatee and Orange assess similar additional property taxes to help fund their schools. 

"Currently, we are in a competitive environment as many school districts around the state have increased local revenues to assist with recruiting and retaining a qualified diverse workforce along with improving educational experiences," Davis said. "In an effort to strengthen our educational system in HCPS, we must seek additional revenues to increase teacher and support staff salaries, expand Art, Music, PE, Media and Technology in our classrooms, expand mental health, along with redesigning workforce development. We are in the early stages of this process and will be engaging stakeholders in the near future."

The school district is facing a $111 million deficit. The proposed tax would bring in an estimated $126 million per year. 

Over the last decade, state per-pupil spending has increased by less than $1 per student. Florida ranks 45th out of 51 states and the District of Columbia in education funding, according to Education Week, and was one of just two states to receive an 'F' grade in funding level, funding distribution and funding effort. 

While Hillsborough's property values and tax revenues have climbed meteorically, school revenues have not risen in step. Chief Finance Officer Romaneir Johnson explained at a January 25 school board meeting that when local tax revenues increase, the state in turn makes a pro-ration of the district's per-pupil allocation.

READ ‘Hot mess’: Hillsborough County still owes its taxpayers $521,183,433

"So they don’t allow us to take full advantage of our property taxes? They cap that on how much we can put towards education for our operational expenses?" asked school board member Jessica Vaughn."That is correct," answered Johnson. 

At the same time, numerous unfunded or partially funded mandates, like enhanced school safety programs, have created additional costs for school districts. 

Since his arrival, Davis has trimmed hundreds of positions, reduced overtime, and cut district budgets by 50-percent to reduce overall spending, yet the district still faces a shortfall. 

READ Tax break eyed for Florida teachers, officers, military members

In 2018, Hillsborough voters approved an additional half-cent sales tax to help fund school and transportation repairs and enhancements. Unlike a local property tax, the sales tax revenues may only be spent on capital improvements like new air conditioning systems, building repairs and school construction. It cannot, however, be used to pay teacher and staff salaries, which account for nearly 90-percent of the district's expenditures

Talks on the proposal are still ongoing, but Davis and several Hillsborough school board members hope to give voters the chance to increase funding for public schools.

"If Hillsborough County values education and they want to do something that allows the actual education that they expect in their schools, let’s allow them to make that decision," said Vaughn.