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Hillsborough candidates differ on proposed property tax for schools

The proposed special property tax to support Hillsborough County Public Schools is turning out to be a litmus test for the eight candidates seeking election this summer to the School Board.

“It’s obviously the number one thing on people’s minds,” said Stacy Hahn, an incumbent in South Tampa who faces opponent Damaris Allen, a longtime PTA leader and education advocate, to represent District 2.

The tax, similar to those that already exist in Pinellas and other Florida districts, would levy an additional $1 on every $1,000 in assessed property value to enhance teacher pay and courses that include art and music. It will be on the same Aug. 23 ballot as the School Board races.

Hahn is against the tax.

“As much as I’d like to support this referendum,” she wrote in response to a Tampa Bay Timesquestionnaire, “it is my belief that when you are asking for an increase in taxes you are saying to taxpayers that you have exhausted every means to improve finances and there is no other recourse.”

Allen favors the tax, saying state leaders forced this decision on local communities by failing to give schools enough funding. “We have teachers living in their cars because they cannot afford rent,” she said.

Hahn is a registered Republican. Allen is a Democrat and is supported by prominent Democratic politicians. But the race is nonpartisan and both candidates strongly resist being labeled conservative or liberal.

“When it comes to political ideology, I don’t like picking one or the other,” Allen said. “I think you have to take each issue individually and weigh what is going to be best for all of us.”

With few exceptions, the eight candidates have taken positions on most issues that similarly avoid extremes.

They say parents have rights in the schools, a position that differs from the conservative criticism that grew to a fever pitch after the debates over student masking.

They support some charter schools, which are state-funded and privately managed. But they wish the district would be more competitive and win back some of the more than 30,000 students who have fled to the charters.

They want to know what books their children are reading. But they generally do not support censorship.

On the tax, however, the question got a clear “no” from Patricia “Patti” Rendon, a disabled services specialist who is running to replace Melissa Snively in East Hillsborough’s District 4. Rendon, who is endorsed by Snively, maintains that ongoing expenses such as teacher pay and arts education should be part of the core budget, not funded by a tax that voters would have to re-approve every four years.

Rendon’s opponents, charter school administrator Danielle Smalley and Polk County school official Hunter Gambrell, both support the tax.

Smalley, who used to work in Hillsborough’s high-poverty schools, remembers when teachers had to bring hurricane fans into their classrooms because the air conditioners were not working. Gambrell is concerned about the teacher shortage and told the Times editorial board, “If we want better schools, we have to stand up as a community and invest in our schools.”

In countywide District 6, where two candidates are challenging incumbent Karen Perez, the messages about the tax are more muddled.

Candidate Roshaun Gendrett, an education advocate, told the audience at a June candidate forum that “the parents, the people of Hillsborough County have lost trust in the School Board” when it comes to spending money. He included a nearly identical statement in his questionnaire response to the Times but did not give a “yes” or “no” answer on the tax.

Perez, a social worker, also has equivocated. She told the Times that if the School Board had placed the question on the November ballot — as she suggested — she probably would have voted “yes” because a higher turnout is expected. On the vote to hold the referendum in August, Perez dissented along with Snively and Hahn.

Perez now says the tax is too much of a hardship for struggling families. And, she added, “I feel that this district needs to pull its belt a little tighter financially, and we could find the money.”

Alysha “Aly Marie” Legge, a U.S. Army veteran and homeschooling parent, said she is against the tax for reasons similar to Rendon’s. It amounts to temporary funding to take care of an ongoing expense, she said.

Legge, who is supported by conservative organizations including Moms for Liberty, also has taken strong stances on culture war issues. She agrees with new state laws limiting discussion of race and LGBTQ issues in classrooms, although she contends that she respects the rights of LGBTQ students and staff. She says sexually explicit books should be removed from public schools.

The field this year is relatively small in Hillsborough, where in some years as many as 20 candidates are on the ballot.

Candidates said they are spending much of their campaign time discussing the proposed tax. Smalley said voters are also asking probing questions about school security. “The general public doesn’t necessarily know trainings that teachers go through,” she said. “In some cases, people feel like nothing is happening.”

The Hahn-Allen race will be decided on Aug. 23.

The other two could be decided on Election Day if one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. If not, the top two will continue to a November runoff.