In the year since Hillsborough County voters approved a halfpenny sales tax to fund infrastructure projects in county schools, known as the Education Referendum, more than $80 million has been raised and Brandon area students are already seeing the benefits.
According to Chris Farkas, deputy superintendent of operations, Hillsborough County Public Schools has spent more than $66 million on 119 projects throughout the county. These projects include 24 air conditioning overhauls, 15 roofing projects, seven school athletic tracks, 17 playgrounds and nine play courts.
“The projects are chosen based on the age of the school, the age of its equipment and the number of maintenance requisitions that come in each school year,” said Farkas.
High schools in Eastern Hillsborough county that have already benefited include Bloomingdale High School, where a new access control system was installed in April; Durant High School, which received a new roof, completed in three phases, and a new water tank; East Bay High School, where a new public address system was installed in the cafe; and Riverview High School, which received a new HVAC system in July.
“Our district maintains an ongoing five-year work plan and also tracks needs many years farther into the future,” said Farkas. “Schools receiving air conditioning overhauls over the 10 years of the referendum were the next 203 schools in need of an overhaul based on system age, reliability and related factors. Other projects were selected similarly, based on need and available budget, with the intent of making a significant investment in every school.”
Lithia Spring Elementary School in Valrico was one of the first locations to receive an air conditioning overhaul, in addition to two new playgrounds.
“The air conditioner upgrades this past summer have been great for our students and staff,” said Lithia Springs Principal Kevin Martin. “Once the system was up and running we have not had to make a single maintenance request where previously we would have needed help two or three times a week. We are very grateful the community has shown such amazing support for our public schools.”
In addition, Bloomingdale’s Alafia Elementary School received three new playgrounds over the summer, Summerfield Elementary underwent a partial roof replacement and Yates Elementary received a new roof. More than $20 million will also go toward new classroom technology.
“Florida ranks 44th in the United States in K-12 education funding,” said Farkas. “The inadequate state funding, combined with massive growth in Hillsborough County during the 90s and early 2000s, led to our community’s shortfall.”
The Education Referendum is expected to generate between $1.2 and $1.3 billion over the next 10 years and the district plans to invest a minimum of $500,000 in each school in the county.
“Last year, our district was facing $1 billion in deferred maintenance and $1 billion needed to build new schools to handle growth. Without the referendum dollars, our students faced a future in aging, crowded classrooms,” said Farkas.
“Our district normally received around $110 million per year in funding for repairs and construction. That amount never could have tackled the backlog of overdue work, along with the new repair requests that are coming in every day. Now, with the half-penny sales tax bringing in an estimated $131 million a year for 10 years, we can take on the overdue work and have the $110 million we normally receive each year available to help handle additional growth and new problems that appear as our schools age.”
Projects and spending are reviewed by an independent Citizen Oversight Committee, led by former State Education Commissioner Betty Castor and Sheriff Chad Chronister, before the work is submitted to the school board for final approval.
To learn more about the Education Referendum and to see a list of projects, visit https://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us and search for ‘Citizen Oversight Committee Project Updates’.