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Is two too many? Hillsborough voters will decide the fate of tax referendums for county schools

A yellow school bus is parked next to a playground.
DavidPrahl/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Two tax referendums on the November 2024 ballot will have major implications for Hillsborough County schools.

School advocates are hopeful a property tax referendum will pass after a similar proposal failed in 2022. But some officials point out that having two tax measures on the ballot are asking voters for too much.

This fall, Hillsborough County voters will get to decide on two local tax referendums — and both have major implications for the county’s schools.

One asks to increase property taxes by one millage, the funds of which will go towards raising teacher and staff pay.

The second is a renewal of the existing half-penny sales tax, called the Community Investment Tax (CIT), which funds major capital improvement projects such as Raymond James Stadium, stormwater infrastructure, fire stations and new school construction.

School advocates are hopeful the millage referendum will pass after a similar proposal failed in 2022. They cite that residents are more aware of how the ongoing teacher shortage is affecting the quality of their child’s education.

But some officials point out that having two tax measures on the ballot might be asking voters for too much, especially as the cost of living continues to rise in the region.

Some county commissioners had debated cutting the school district out of the CIT entirely, even as school officials stressed that the purposes of the two taxes are different.

Commissioner Ken Hagan said he feared voters will still perceive the school district as “double dipping,” endangering the chances of the much-broader CIT from passing. The sales tax generated a total of $2.3 billion since its inception in 1996, with a fifth being funded by tourists and visitors.

Ultimately, commissioners compromised by shrinking the district’s share of the sales tax from 25% to 5% and shortening the length of it from 30 to 15 years. That leaves the district with at least a $57 million shortfall to expand and build schools over the next decade.

Another chance for the millage

The Hillsborough property tax for schools was narrowly defeated in 2022, by a margin of less than a percent.

But proponents believe that this year is different. Ellen Lyons is the vice president of advocacy for the Hillsborough County Council PTA. She said people are recognizing that the teacher shortage is not going away, particularly as long as other districts are paying their staff more.

“This is just like in any business — if you don't pay the people who are going to educate your children a living wage, they're gonna go work elsewhere. And that's what's happening,” said Lyons.

Shortages lasted throughout the school year that's about to wrap up.

On the first day of classes in August 2023, about 10,000 students were without a full-time teacher, and at last count in April, the district reported about 470 teacher vacancies remain. And a shortage of 210 bus drivers caused thousands of students to be late throughout the school year, according to the district.

When urging voters to approve the property tax referendum, superintendent Van Ayres pointed out that surrounding school districts that already levy similar taxes are paying their teachers higher salaries. State law allows school districts to levy up to one mill for operational costs through a local referendum.

Pinellas County Schools, this year, are proposing increasing their existing half mill tax to one full mill.

“The nationwide teaching shortage is not something other districts are immune to, but those that have a tax have an advantage to getting high quality teachers,” said Lyons.

Groups that plan to advocate for the property tax referendum point out that this year’s campaign strategy is different. In 2022, then-superintendent Addison Davis had hired an outside consultant who had little time to prepare before the August primary election.

This year, there’s more time to educate voters before November's general election, which is also expected to draw a much larger turnout.

Rob Kriete, president of the Hillsborough County teachers union, said his group is working with local organizations on promoting the tax at various community meetings.

“We’ve been doing work on this months in advance and we’re working with community partners. None of that was happening in 2022,” said Kriete.

A crowded ballot

For Damaris Allen, a public school advocate, debate about presenting voters with two tax measures isn’t new. A similar discussion in 2018 revolved around a half-penny sales tax for school maintenance and a now-defunct transportation tax, both of which passed — although the transportation tax was later stuck down by the courts.

“Voters know the needs of our community and they were willing to come out and support both of those,” said Allen who was involved in the 2018 campaign, “I think people are willing to invest in what they see is important.”

Still, political communications expert Josh Scacco said both proponents and opponents will have to “cut through the noise” of an already-crowded ballot. The local referendums are accompanying a presidential race, U.S. Senate election and two high-profile ballot measures on abortion and marijuana.

Messaging and education will be key in getting people to continue to vote down ballot, said Scacco, the Director of the Center for Sustainable Democracy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of South Florida.

“Voters will be inundated with statewide voter initiatives, which has the potential to crowd out the attention that countywide referendums get,” he said.

Another factor to consider is this year’s electorate. Scacco says presidential races typically draw out younger, more diverse voters.

“Based on historic data, the electorate will be more diverse politically, economically, and that will be a product of the races that are at play,” said Scacco, “That will potentially have effects down ballot.”

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