HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Jonathan Casanas has been teaching music in Hillsborough County Public Schools for nearly a decade.
“I have a good friend, his name is Billy Whiting, and he says, 'Shared music-making experiences helps to string social bonds.' And I feel like that's something we're missing a lot in schools today,” Casanas told ABC Action News.
He lives for the joy and creativity he sees in his students, but he fears any day could be what they call an outro in music or his end.
“It wouldn't be an understatement to say that a lot of teachers, especially in the arts, are concerned about what the following years are gonna bring,” Casanas exclaimed. “And a lot of them are pursuing other roles, other career opportunities because it's just not competitive to work in this market. And as we know, inflation is going up, and it's getting harder to live in the area.”
It’s reasons like this that Hillsborough and Pasco county school districts are asking voters for a 1% millage tax on the primary ballot on August 23.
In Hillsborough County, the district is currently short 680 instructional positions, with an average salary of $47,000.
If approved, the district promises at least 75% of the money to:
- Enhance the average instructional salary by $4,000 and the average non-instructional salary by $2,000
- Add 45 art teachers, 67 music teachers, and 37 PE teachers
- Repair and replace art, music, and PE equipment
- Expand workforce education programs
“It's a hard time right now; we get it. But you know, last year we had 1,000 students that did not have a stable teacher every single day due to the great resignation. And that's unfair, you know, every day that we wait that, you know, that number grows and exacerbated,” Superintendent Addison Davis told ABC Action News in an interview.
In Pasco County, the district is short 364 instructional positions, with an average teaching salary of $46,000.
The district said the additional money would enhance salaries for non-administrators, including teachers, bus drivers, and custodians.
“If you drive up and down 54, lots of places in Pasco, you can see there's lots more students, we're having to build lots more schools, we're having to hire teachers to go into those schools and less drivers and everything else,” exclaimed Spokesperson Steve Hegarty.
We’ve heard some citizens express concern that the districts should already be getting enough money from rapid growth in the Tampa Bay area including impact fees as well as prior COVID-19 relief money.
We went to Political Analyst Susan MacManus for her input.
“It is true, and that's one of the big question marks and one of the reasons why the vote to put it on the ballot to begin with in Hillsborough County was just almost equally divided 4-3 vote,” MacManus explained. “Under state law, the millage rates for operational sides and school districts are set by the state, not locally, so they can't really tap 100% into that growth in the property tax due to assessment values going up and so forth.”
There’s also been concern over Hillsborough School’s past financial issues, so we asked Superintendent Davis what has changed.
“This is the first year in a decade the school district will not end in a financial deficit, and that came through tough decisions,” he said. “My first eight months were hard when we found out that we, you know, we were $150 million in the hole, and I had to cut positions, move 400 teachers from one school to the next. It was super unattractive. But it was what we had to do, and I had to do as a leader to be able to protect this organization so the state of Florida didn’t take us over into receivership.”
As for state help, last year, Governor Ron Desantis allocated $800 million to raise minimum teacher pay from $40,000 to $47,000, but board members say they’re losing teachers to other counties that pay more.
“I think the state is starting to do better, but we also have to, we have to compete with our neighboring districts. So when the state does better, everybody does better Florida,” said Colleen Beaudoin, School Board member for District 2 in Pasco County.
Unfortunately, some are leaving the profession altogether.
“I can tell you that, you know, last week, we lost two music teachers in our county who are ready to make a move, a different transition to something new, where hopefully they can be compensated a little bit better and have a little bit more consistency,” Casanas exclaimed.
Macmanus said this vote comes down to who shows up for the primaries and where their priorities and trust lie.
We also asked these districts why they chose to put these referendums on the primary ballot instead of the November ballot.
We’re told that in November, there will be county-wide taxes for voters — a transportation tax in Hillsborough as well as a Penny for Pasco tax.
They did not want to get these taxes mixed up with education, especially in such a financially difficult time for everyone.
“There's been some controversy about that some feel that they should have waited till November because more people would weigh in on the decision,” MacManus explained. “But… putting two tax proposals on one ballot was not always very shrewd, typically in times of recession.”
For homeowners, it would be $225 a year for a home valued at $250,000 and $375 a year for a $450,000 home.
If approved, these taxes will last four years.