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Hillsborough School Board postpones a decision on a tax referendum that would raise teacher pay

Hillsborough County School Board decided to postpone a vote on a tax referendum aimed to raise teacher pay. The vote would have placed the decision before voters on the Nov. 2024 ballot.
Hillsborough County Public Schools
Hillsborough County School Board decided to postpone a vote on a tax referendum aimed to raise teacher pay. The vote would have placed the decision before voters on the Nov. 2024 ballot.

The Hillsborough County School Board delayed a vote on a tax referendum that would raise money for teacher salaries.

For nearly two hours, school board members debated whether to bring back a tax referendum that would raise funds for teacher and staff salaries.

While board members said properly compensating teachers during a time of high inflation is their priority, some wanted more guidance on how the referendum would work.

The board voted unanimously for Interim Super Intendent Van Ayres to schedule a workshop in January to further discuss the referendum.

The board could vote on whether to place the question on the November 2024 ballot at a later meeting.

The proposed referendum asks Hillsborough County voters if they support a 1 millage increase — or an additional $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value — on their property taxes for the next four years in order to fund competitive salaries for teachers and staff.

The tax would be levied on July 1, 2025 and sunset on June 30, 2029.

A similar tax referendum went to voters last year and failed by 590 votes, a margin of less than half a percent.

Ayres said the district was "very clear" that the referendum would be back when it didn't pass in August 2022. He added that the district needs the money to recruit teachers and retain those who are leaving because of low pay.

"We need it to be competitive with surrounding school districts. We are not on a level playing field," Ayres said. "I'll say it 20 times tonight, we are not on a level playing field."

Of the five largest school districts in Florida, Hillsborough is the only county that does not levy the additional 1 mill for operating costs — the funding bucket that most teacher and staff salaries come from, Ayres said.

Board Chair Nadia Combs described how teachers and administrators are leaving for surrounding districts that offer higher pay.

"We are losing teachers left and right. We lost two administrators in the last two weeks to neighboring districts. And if you ask them why they left it was because of compensation," said Combs, "because they can go across the bay and make about $20,000 more."

Surrounding districts Pinellas, Sarasota and Manatee have the additional 1 mill, Ayres said. Pasco County voters approved the tax in last year's elections.

Jessica Vaughn, the District 3 representative, said current state funding is not keeping up with inflation and, therefore, not sustaining needs in public education.

"I think it's unfortunate that we have to ask our specific community to pay an additional tax. I heard speakers tonight speak about our families who are struggling with raised utilities, the price of housing, inflation, all the other fees." Vaughn said. "But those are the same fees that are driving our employees out of being able to serve in this district."

But District 2 representative Stacy Hahn said her hesitancy to move the referendum forward comes from not having a clear plan for how the tax money will fund teacher salaries.

"I think that if we had more planning and conversations, it makes some of us feel a little bit better about what's being brought forth tonight," said Hahn. "I think that that's all about being transparent and building trust ... and it's crucial when you're asking people who are struggling to pay their mortgage right now."

Board member Patti Rendon agreed that a clearer plan needs to be in place and also pointed out that the district could do a better job of cutting spending in other areas.

"We've not looked at other options of saving this district money," said Rendon, who added that the district has benefitted from pandemic reliefESSER fundsthe last three years.

Combs iterated throughout the discussion that it was important that board members are united in supporting the referendum this year. Last year's board vote passed 4-3.

"Pasco County, Polk County, all the surrounding school districts. You had a 7-0 vote," said Combs, "How can we expect the voters to go out there and support that if our own school board doesn't support our own teachers?"

The school board's vote would not raise property taxes, but put the decision before voters in November 2024.

If approved by voters, the tax increase could generate around $166 million dollars for teacher and staff pay annually.

School board attorney Jim Porter said the board has until around April or May to finalize the language in the ballot and resolution before sending it to the county commission.

"We're way ahead of the curve on this and we're getting out in front of it," said Porter.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.