RIVERVIEW, Fla. — The formidable challenge that the Hillsborough County School District is facing in getting public approval for a property tax referendum on the Aug. 23 ballot was evident last month, when Superintendent Addison Davis discussed the specifics of the proposal at Sumner High School in Riverview.

With a video screen behind him illustrating how the one mil increase in ad valorem tax would benefit the district, Davis made his case — with less than two dozen members of the public in attendance.

What You Need To Know

  • The school district is asking for a 1 mil increase which would increase school funding by about $146 million annually for a four-year period from 2023-2027. It would levy an additional $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value

  • At least 75% of the district's share of funds would be used for salary increases for teachers, bus drivers and other support staff

  • Hillsborough County ranks 45th among 67 Florida districts in state and local per-pupil funding

The Hillsborough County School District’s push to get the public to raise their property taxes for salary increases for teachers, support staff and other programs comes four years after county voters approved a half-cent surtax to fund maintenance issues like air conditioning for county schools.

“We need money in our general fund, and unfortunately, we’re just not getting enough revenue from the state,” said School Board member Jessica Vaughn.

The tax would raise property taxes for Hillsborough homeowners by adding an additional $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value, and if approved, would provide approximately $146 million to the school district for a four-year period.

Hillsborough County school officials say that there are several factors that demand that they bring a property tax increase before the voters, something that 21 other counties in Florida have already done, including some in surrounding school districts that officials say has put Hillsborough at a disadvantage in the region.

Those officials also refer to the fact that the state ranks 45th in total per-pupil funding nationally; how the district has 4,000 instructional vacancies, with 9,000 vacancies anticipated by the end of the year, and how inflation has outpaced increases in education funding over the past 15 years.

But former School Board member Steve Cona isn’t buying it.

“I don’t necessarily think that the tax is going to solve their problems,” he said. “In fact, I think the tax is going to make their problems worse, quite honestly.”

Cona, the president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Gulf Coast Chapter, says that the district should look at making more financial cuts within their organization before going back before the taxpayers for assistance.

Hillsborough school officials respond that Davis has been able to eliminate a $150 million deficit that he inherited when he was hired in January 2020. And they cite the fact that the Legislature has mandated a steady decline in the millage rate over the decade, which has mitigated any increases in property values. They contend that what has compelled more than 20 other school districts previously in Florida to go to the voters via referenda to raise local dollars to raise teachers’ salaries and support staff.

“It’s been over a decade that we haven’t gotten more of an increase in revenue from the state as far as our budget is concerned,” Vaughn said. “And now with inflation rising and everything else, in order to give our employees a livable wage, unfortunately we have to prioritize funding our public schools locally at the county level.”

For Davis, the need for increased funding is to “win the talent war.”

“We have got to be relentless in being able to recruit and retain the best and the brightest,” he said in Riverview last month.


Flexibility to offer teachers earlier raises?


Cona says that an underlying problem with the district losing talented young instructors are the labor agreements between the district and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association that pay experienced teachers more money. Currently, teachers don’t see an annual increase from their starting salary of $47,500 until completing their seventh year.

“If you have an agreement that really just benefits the folks who’ve been there a long time, and it doesn’t reward the results in the front end?” he asks. “The turnover is immense in the first year. That’s why you have a teacher shortage. That’s why you have all those challenges, because you’re not rewarding results."

Vaughn agrees that the district needs more “flexibility” to give raises earlier than seven years.

Cona says that there could be bonuses given or other “one-time things” to reward excellent teachers in their first few years.

Rob Kriete, the president of the Hillsborough County Teachers Association, doesn’t like the idea of offering “bonus schemes.”

“Our teachers and support professionals do not see bonus schemes as a way to recruit or retain highly qualified teachers,” he told Spectrum News in an email. “First our educators do their very best to meet the needs of their students every single day. A bonus attached to a standardized test as a motivator is counter-intuitive and quite frankly, insulting. These hard-working education professionals deserve a salary they can count on, so they can budget accordingly and not have their pay tied to test scores.”

There is no question that with inflation running at the highest rate in more than four decades, the request for a tax increase is challenging for district officials. The vote also is taking place later this month, where voter engagement won’t be as strong as it will be in November, the date where Vaughn would have preferred the issue come up for a vote.

“We need to give as many people (as possible) a voice and allow them to make the decision about what they want to prioritize,“ she said, noting that while the primary excludes non-party-affiliated votes from participating in partisan races, every registered voter in Hillsborough is eligible to vote on the school tax measure.

Officials say that at least 75% of the projected $146 million that the district would get for the next four years if the referendum passes would go to increase salaries for instructional positions, and the remaining amount would be used to protect and expand art, music, P.E. and workforce education.