By STEPHEN FLANAGAN JACKSON
The voters have spoken in Hillsborough County. On Nov. 6, the majority of ballots supported the Education Referendum sales tax hike, so now, what’s next and when?
Of major interest are the multiple air conditioning problems, which precipitated so many complaints of discomfort in the dog days of August and September. Now, with the money encumbered, but not yet collected in full, the district can take the first steps toward replacing or overhauling 203 AC units in schools around the county. “This summer we will start 18 different AC replacement projects,” one district official said. “Those are advertised for bids right now.”
That official, Hillsborough Superintendent of Operations Chris Farkas, said some work has already commenced, and visible change will soon be obvious. Farkas added that the school district has already started the process of selecting construction managers and architects. Farkas explained that other small projects like playground replacements are currently underway. The district has also requested bids from outside vendors for projects such as fire alarm replacements, repainting schools and elevator upgrades. Crews are anticipated to start the first phases of these projects in March and April. District facilities and maintenance teams are expected to focus and start on other smaller projects after the first of the year in early 2019.
The half-cent sales tax earmarked for countywide projects actually will ka-ching on the cash registers on Jan. 1, 2019, and the added cash starts flowing into county schools’ coffers in February. The half-cent sales tax is set to run for 10 years, with funds going to all the approximate 230 schools in the district. The average appropriated for each school is about $500,000 over the next decade. A list of the projects for public schools in the South Shore area was published in the Oct. 25 Observer News newspapers.
In a statement to the news media, a happy and relieved District Superintendent Jeff Eakins, after a strenuous informative campaign throughout the county, said, “The people have spoken, and they support our students. This approval of the half-penny sales tax shows the deep care and understanding the people of Hillsborough County have for education, our students, our teachers, our staff and the future of our community.”
A school district spokesperson also said the first wave of the major projects includes 20 AC replacements and millions of dollars for roof repairs, which are on tap to start over the summer, “because students and staff must be off campus as crews of sometimes more than 100 workers complete the projects.”
An independent Citizen Oversight Committee, headed by former State Education Commissioner Betty Castor and Sheriff Chad Chronister, is charged with reviewing each project and the spending on each project prior to them being brought before the school board for final approval.
Eakins and school board members were effusive with their appreciation for the people who worked hard on the referendum, including the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, the Alliance for Public Schools, the parents of PTA/PTSA organizations, the Hillsborough Education Foundation, Hillsborough School Employees Federation and the Hillsborough Association of School Administrators.
Eakins and the school board did not forget to credit the district’s dedicated employees and its principals, “who worked tirelessly to inform the community about their schools’ needs and the challenges their children face every day.”