Back to school specials: Cooler schools, fresh playgrounds, lessons in taxation

Though it may not be listed in the curriculum, a lesson in why taxes are worth paying may be the first thing Hillsborough County public school students learn when they go back to school starting August 12. 

Last fall Hillsborough County voters passed a referendum authorizing a half-penny sales tax to fund critical repairs and upgrades for schools around the county. Projects like new air conditioners, roof replacements and repairs, new gym floors, playgrounds and outdoor tracks, security system upgrades, and many other projects.

The referendum followed a well-orchestrated, weeks-long communications campaign in which Superintendent Jeff Eakins held town hall meetings with parents and principals amplified his messages to parents at every school. Explanatory videos and
The Tampa Tiger Bay Club will lead a conversation on funding public schools with Superintendent Jeff Eakins, School Board Chair Tamara Shamburger, and education advocate Melissa Erickson on August 16th. Get your tickets here.
memes were carefully prepared so parents and other voters understood what was at stake: Without funding, the degradation of the county’s public school infrastructure would only continue, and most painfully, the air conditioning systems that notoriously break down on the hottest days of the year would just get worse. 

“Out of the 50 states, Florida is in the bottom five when it comes to funding public education,” notes Eakins. But when the referendum passed, “it really showed that our community wanted to invest in our students. Our community understands the value of strong schools and the hard work our staff does to deliver a great education every day.”

With $40 million in tax dollars generated by the referendum to date, the school district set in motion an ambitious plan to tackle the highest priorities on a lengthy list of repairs and overhauls needed across the county, coordinating over 100 major projects this summer alone. All are slated for completion before school starts next week, including outfitting 21 schools with new air conditioning systems.

Tangible tax dollars

It’s not often that you get to see where your tax dollars are going in a tangible and immediate way, but thousands of Hillsborough County public school students will see first-hand how tax dollars can serve the community. 

It’s also a lesson in economics -- these projects are feeding the local economy by hiring local engineering and construction firms Construction work at Lincoln Elementary Magnet School in Plant City.and local construction workers. At the same time, many of the projects create further cost-savings because of energy-efficient solutions and by saving money on things like emergency rental chillers, a constant for the dilapidated air condition systems, that can cost $8,000-$12,000 per month.

“The impact is not just on the kids - who don’t do too well when there is no A/C,” says Chris Farkas, Deputy Superintendent, Operations for Hillsborough County Public Schools. “Taxpayer dollars are being invested right back into the community, including into local women and minority-owned businesses.”

Eakins agrees. “This is a huge economic boost in the short-term and an even bigger boost in the long-term, by helping prepare students for life.”

Priorities and oversight for $1.3B

With a backlog of hundreds of projects, priorities are enumerated based on a formal process of committee review, cost and degree of urgency. The referendum tax dollars will generate about $1.3 billion over 10 years to invest in the schools and can only be used for air conditioning, renovations, maintenance, security, classroom technology, and new school construction. Over the A crane lifts a new air handler at Walden Lake Elementary in Plant City.next decade, more than 200 schools will receive an A/C overhaul or replacement. Beyond the summer projects, the district plans to replace 50 playgrounds and complete more than 30 painting and carpeting projects in the first year. 

“Our biggest challenge is patience,” says Farkas. “Twenty-one schools getting new air conditioning systems this summer is very aggressive, but it means 200 others didn’t get them.”

The district plans to invest at least $500,000 at every district school during the 10-year span. A complete list of projects can be found here on the district’s website.

A Citizen’s Oversight Committee, a critical part of the referendum “bargain” struck with voters, was formed to ensure transparency that the referendum dollars would be spent and managed the way they were intended. The seven-member committee, six of whom must be unaffiliated with the district and the projects, includes prominent figures with a history of supporting education and the community, with strong backgrounds managing large budgets and teams. Former President of USF and twice-elected Florida Commissioner of Education Betty Castor chairs the committee and reports she is “very impressed.”

“The district has done an exceptional job this summer,” says Castor. “The fiscal issues are being watched closely and all funds accounted for. I’m extremely pleased to be a part of this important upgrade for our schools.”

Collaboration leads to a cool school

At Walker IB Middle Magnet, a school in Odessa that has been plagued for years with a shoddy air conditioning system, work began the day after school let out in June to replace the air conditioning system. 

What’s involved? First up: stripping out and replacing all of the insulation and ductwork across the 22,000+-square-foot school. All 17 of the air-handlers and 123 VAV boxes (in the ceiling of every room) -- pulled out and replaced. Seventy-one exhaust fans. The infrastructure that houses the exterior A/C units was completely gutted and renovated, and, of course, the chiller units were replaced. Plus all of the electrical that backs this up including new controls with electrical panels. It’s not just plugging in a new system.

Walker’s principal, Heather Holloway, says she was impressed by the project management, noting regular updates, clear Walker Middle School Principal Heather Holloway.timelines that were met, and safety regulations that were strictly enforced.  
She also says that the communication has been excellent not just with the contractors, but the construction workers as well, necessary since the school was still conducting business-as-usual as best they could through the summer. 

As an example, Walker’s Ag Club has a chicken coup with 14 hens and two roosters that have needed ongoing care, feeding, and cleaning during the summer. It’s also building a den to house a large rescue Sulcata African tortoise, who will soon be moving in. Holloway says protecting their habitats was really important throughout this process and that the 55 construction workers on site were responsive and respectful, working well with the custodial and other school staff. “We have been able to successfully coexist,” she says.

“This was a true partnership between district staff, community taxpayers, the contractors and the oversight committee ensuring that these projects are happening in a timely fashion and on schedule ….six weeks!” says Holloway. “And with the best end-result: A cool school!”

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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