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Tampa Bay schools are feeling the impact of inflation. Some consider taxes to close the funding gap

Students arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Hillsborough County, Fla., on Aug. 10. After thousands of students were put in isolation or quarantine, the district is revisiting its safety protocols, including its current mask-optional policy.
Chris O'Meara
For many school districts, special property taxes provide the funding needed to keep things going.

One Tampa Bay county is getting ready to vote on keeping a school tax in place, while another is considering a similar option.

Special property taxes can provide the money cash-strapped school districts need to keep things going.

One Tampa Bay area county is getting ready to vote on keeping a school tax in place, while another is considering a similar option.

The Hillsborough County School Board hasn't decided to hold a vote yet.

But at a recent meeting, members debated whether instituting a special property tax would be a viable option — as the district deals with a projected $89 million dollar deficit for the period ending in June.

Board member Jessica Vaughn argued in favor of letting voters decide.

"It should be up to us to say here's our problem, here's a solution," Vaughn said. "If Hillsborough County values public education and they want to do something that can allow the actual education that they expect in their schools when they send their kids, allow them to make that decision."

Otherwise, the district has to make more cuts or ask the state for more money, Vaughn added.

Board member Melissa Snively agreed that the state “doesn’t fund education properly.” But she said her constituents would likely not support a tax. She added that even if a referendum is passed, it would take months for the money to come in.

“That’s a longer term health plan and we need CPR,” Snively said.

The pandemic has only worsened the country’s rise in inflation and cost of living. But Florida’s allocation of money for education has remained mostly stagnant, said Tanya Arja, district spokeswoman, in a prepared statement.

“Our district has experienced the impacts of underfunding in the last several years, which resulted in cost reduction measures including but not limited to staffing cuts,” she said. “As we continue to interact with our stakeholders to learn more about our students' educational needs, we know that we must create an alternative funding source.”

Arja noted that the district’s families want more classroom resources and staffing.

School districts across the country rely on property taxes to fill in the gaps of their budgets. Sarasota has had a one-mill property tax since 2002 — now the county will decide on March 8 whether they will renew the tax.

Jane Goodwin is the chair of the Sarasota County School Board — and a referendum supporter.

She said the money helps the district stay at an A level, supporting efforts like lengthening the school day, arts programs and increasing teacher salaries.

"I think it has made a great deal of difference to us that we have had the funding to do those things that we deem important for students,” she said.

Goodwin said the fund produced $68 million last year, and is projected to raise more than $71 million this year.

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.