Hillsborough School Board asks taxpayers to fund school repairs

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Aging schools, poor air conditioning systems, and increasing student populations are cited as reasons the Hillsborough County School Board needs more money.

Friday, in a 5-2 vote, it decided to ask voters to decide whether it will get that money, in the form of a half-cent sales tax referendum on the November ballot. 

"This is critical. We are in crisis," said School Board Member Sally Harris.  

She is referring to $3 billion the district needs to maintain its 230 schools.

The half-cent sales tax would be put toward new air conditioning units and roofs, new schools, and paying off the mortgages of more than 60 schools built during the 1990s and 2000s.

"Let the voters decide if they want to pay for air conditioning and roofs for this district, and the lead mitigation and the radon mitigation," said School Board Member Cindy Stuart. "We will keep asking voters these questions until we win." 

"I have been at schools that are in South Tampa, some of the highest-rated schools in our county, that don't have air conditioning," said Kim Klace, the parent of a Hillsborough County student. "I have a special needs child who had to live through two weeks [without air conditioning] last year in his class."

Klace speaks for many parents throughout the district whose children have had to sit in hot classrooms. 

"I think parents are feeling it right now," she said. "There's no air conditioners, there's mold. People are concerned about lead, radon. Parents care and parents are voters. You will see us at the polls." 

Not all of the school board members were on board. Two voted against the referendum, including Melissa Snively.

"We need to continue proving to the public that we can be financial stewards," said Snively. "Not just good financial stewards, superior financial stewards of taxpayer dollars." 

Base funding from the state rose 47 cents per student for this school year. District leaders says that won't cover the billions of dollars needed to fix up their schools..

"If we're not going to get the funding that's going to come from the state level, which has only increased 1.2 percent over the last three years in the base student allocation," said superintendent Jeff Eakins. "We know that's not going to cover our needs, so that's why we're looking locally. That's why a lot of communities across the state of Florida and other large counties looked to their communities to get that investment in local revenue."

In order to get the referendum on the ballot in November, Eakins says the supervisor of elections will need to have the language and the county commission would have to call a special board meeting for this coming Monday.

On top of that, there's a state audit that must be completed, which is new this year, a school district spokesperson said, and action will likely have to happen in the next two weeks.