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Hillsborough voters will decide whether to pass a tax increase to raise teacher pay

A number of people sit at a dais, while a screen displaying one man speaking into a mic while wearing glasses and a suit is above them.
Nancy Guan
School Board member Henry "Shake" Washington, in an impassioned speech, said that Hillsborough County voters should have the chance to decide on the tax increase.

A proposed local property tax increase could generate almost $180 million that would go mainly towards increasing teacher and staff pay.

Hillsborough County School Board members voted 5 to 2 on Tuesday in favor of putting a tax referendum before voters on the Nov. 5 ballot.

If passed, the 1 millage property tax would cost the average homeowner about $1 a day and generate around $740 million over four years, the duration of the tax before it had to be voted on again.

The ballot referendum comes after a similar measure failed by less than 1 percent in 2022. A majority, or 50% +1, of voters are needed to pass the referendum.

Hillsborough School Superintendent Van Ayres said teacher and staff vacancies are a result of the district's lower pay compared to surrounding counties. And that, in turn, is impacting students’ education.

“I would not be bringing this referendum forward if I didn't feel the urgent need for Hillsborough County Public Schools right now,” said Ayres.

The district is looking to fill vacancies for 473 teachers, 210 bus drivers and 61 nutrition workers.

Due to the shortage, about 10,000 students did not have a full-time teacher on the first day of the 2023 school year, according to district data. And with the lack of bus drivers running routes, about 8,000 students arrive late to school every day, Ayres added.

“From day one of being superintendent, what has kept me up at night, is the number of vacancies that we have in our classrooms,” Ayres said.

Hillsborough teacher salaries start at $47,501, at least several thousand dollars less than Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota county schools, which all have additional millage rates in place to fund salaries.

Average bus driver and nutrition worker pay also lag behind most surrounding districts, excluding Pasco.

Funds from the additional property tax could help fill that gap, said Ayres.

Math behind the millage

A millage is $1 for every $1,000 of a home's assessed value.

The value of a typical home — or the median home value — in the county is around $306,000. With a homestead exemption, the taxable value is $281,000. That’s about $281 in property taxes a year or 75 cents a day.

About $177 million annually will be generated, according to the County Tax Assessor’s calculations and the district’s chief of staff.

Most of the funds, 92%, will go directly toward increasing salaries. As a result, teachers and administrators will see an additional $6,000 a year. Support staff will get an additional $3,000 a year.

The remaining funds will go toward extended learning and the arts, expanding sports options and college and career readiness. Included in the district’s plan is placing a college counselor at every high school.

Charter schools will receive a proportionate share of the funds based on student enrollment.

A tough decision

During a heated discussion Tuesday, board member Henry “Shake” Washington recalled his own time as a teacher in the district and having to work multiple jobs.

“Teachers are the backbone of this educational system,” said Washington. “Every employee in this system should be paid what they are due.”

The board acknowledged that the referendum is coming at a time of high inflation and rising property costs.

But board member Jessica Vaughn said that if Hillsborough does not improve pay, employees will continue leaving for other districts.

“I hate going to and asking homeowners to pay something additional,” said Vaughn. “But at the end of the day, in order to be competitive and make sure that we're able to retain our quality teachers and keep those teachers that change our student lives in our classrooms, it's a necessity unfortunately.”

Stacey Hahn voted against the referendum, saying the district needed to be more transparent with the budget. Board member Patti Rendon cast the other no vote, saying she wanted to see the district do more with existing funds.

Board members agreed that an independent oversight committee will be formed by next year if voters approve the millage this fall.

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