Op-Ed: Here’s why to ignore the Tampa Bay Times on the Hillsborough schools tax

There is no conceivable set of “remedies worth exploring” that will close this gap, and the Times does a disservice to its readers by suggesting otherwise.

click to enlarge The Tampa Bay Times building in Tampa, Florida. - Photo by Ray Roa
Photo by Ray Roa
The Tampa Bay Times building in Tampa, Florida.
For almost every employee in the School District of Hillsborough County—whether teacher, paraprofessional, secretary, bus driver, principal, or otherwise—the mere mention of Superintendent Addison Davis awakens intense emotions.

The district’s refusal—for the second year in a row—to recognize the work employees have performed and provide the pay adjustments employees are promised under its “pay-for-performance” system is near the top of the list of frustrations. Negative media attention resulting from projected budget deficits and the specter of a state takeover of the school system has eroded trust in the school district’s leadership among the broader public as well.

So it was disappointing, but not altogether surprising, that the Tampa Bay Times recommended a “no” vote on a millage referendum that would generate $150 million or more in operating revenues for schools in Hillsborough County. It called the referendum “premature” and asserted that “the district still has remedies worth exploring before asking for more money,” such as closing down community schools. But does it, really?

For decades, the Florida legislature’s lust to cut taxes has robbed students of the kind of education they deserve. Why should schools be forced to close their doors to students before the community starts trying to fill the gaping revenue hole the state has dug us into? In what sense is this a “remedy” that must be “explored”?.

The Times Editorial Board (wisely, perhaps) does not attempt to answer these questions, instead maintaining a clinical distance from the reality of what students and educators face in schools. But even at that distance, its insinuations that Hillsborough County’s schools are somehow uniquely unfit to receive tax dollars fall apart under light scrutiny..

First, it claims the district routinely “[used] internal transfers and cash reserves to cover a half-billion dollar deficit.” This elides the fact that, in 2020-2021 (the most recent year data is available), the district did not run an operating deficit at all, instead having a surplus of nearly $8 million—one of only two urban districts in the state to run a surplus that year.
click to enlarge Op-Ed: Here’s why to ignore the Tampa Bay Times on the Hillsborough schools tax
Graphic via Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association

Moreover, the implication that the use of “internal transfers” (i.e., importing funds from Capital Projects accounts into the General Fund) to cover a deficit evinces financial mismanagement is, at best, misleading. It is, in fact, standard practice for such transfers to make up the difference between revenues and expenditures. If anything, Hillsborough should make more use of internal transfers. Among Florida’s large urban school districts, it transfers by far the least relative to its size—only 1.39% of operating revenues, compared to an average of 4.87%.

The reference to using “cash reserves” to offset budget deficits—or, as a separate Times op-ed salaciously put it, “raiding your savings to pay your monthly light bill”—is, again, misleading at best. Overlooked is the fact that Hillsborough held unjustifiably huge sums of taxpayer dollars in its cash reserves in the recent past (over $2,000 per student in 2007-08, for instance, when other districts held an average closer to $600 per student) instead of using these funds to educate the students of Hillsborough County. From 2014-2015 to 2018-2019, Hillsborough’s cash reserves were in line with those in other large urban school districts. Only in 2019-2020 did Hillsborough begin to fall behind its peers—not coincidentally a direct result of many new or enhanced millage referenda coming online around the state (but not in Hillsborough) following the 2018 elections.
click to enlarge Op-Ed: Here’s why to ignore the Tampa Bay Times on the Hillsborough schools tax (2)
Graphic via Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association

This brings us to the crux of the issue. Far from the image of a bloated and wasteful bureaucracy in need of further cutting, the reality is that Hillsborough operates on the meagerest budget—by a country mile—of all large urban school districts in Florida. In 2020-2021, for example, Hillsborough spent $8,239.04 in operating revenues per student, over $1,000 less than the average in other large urban districts.
click to enlarge Op-Ed: Here’s why to ignore the Tampa Bay Times on the Hillsborough schools tax (3)
Graphic via Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association

There is no conceivable set of “remedies worth exploring” that will close this gap, and the Times does a disservice to its readers by suggesting otherwise. The students of Hillsborough County are no less deserving of the best education we can provide than students in any other district. That is why you should vote “yes” on the millage referendum on Aug. 23.

Graham Picklesimer is the Executive Director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

Creative Loafing Tampa Bay regularly accepts submissions for guest columns. Please email [email protected] for details. 
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