Does Hillsborough need a new schools tax? Board candidates are divided.

Four candidates for the District 7 school board seat in Hillsborough County took sharply different positions Friday on a proposed special property tax for schools.

On other issues — including adult-themed books in school libraries and the closing of largely empty schools — the candidates equivocated at times during a forum held by the Tampa Tiger Bay Club.

But there was no ambiguity when it came to the proposed tax hike of $1 for every $1,000 in taxable value aimed primarily at supporting teacher pay raises.

District 7 incumbent Lynn Gray and candidate Johnny Bush gave strong arguments why the district needs the money. Two other challengers, Karen Bendorf and Jen Flebotte, each gave a resounding “no.”

Three of the four are current or former district employees. Flebotte, whose work experience is in architecture and building, is campaigning as an outsider who would demand financial accountability for the school system and its $4 billion budget.

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to say ‘transparency’ enough today,” Flebotte told a crowd gathered at the Cuban Club in Tampa.

Bush, the former principal of Plant and Robinson high schools, focused on the difficulty in attracting and retaining skilled teachers with pay that lags behind other districts that already have special property taxes.

“I have two letters on my desk right now, letters of recommendation for (teachers) who are going to Sarasota and Orange County,” he said. Earlier, he said, “I supervised four interns last year from two local universities and not one of them took a job in Hillsborough County.”

Gray said she is alarmed at reports that the state’s new vouchers for homeschooling and private schools will take as much as $80 million out of the district’s budget.

“We are looking at, gradually, the defunding of public education,” she said. “How much more can we substract? When you start minus-ing quality teachers because we cannot pay them, then what do we have left?”

At the same time, Gray said she does not believe Hillsborough went far enough this year in closing under-enrolled schools.

Bush disagreed with her on this point. He said the district should work to make schools more desirable instead of closing them.

Flebotte and Bendorf spoke against both the proposed property tax and the county capital improvement tax, which might also support the schools. They said the district needs to become less wasteful before it asks for more money from homeowners and from renters, who would feel the effects of their landlords’ higher property taxes.

“You cannot justify this,” Flebotte said. “You cannot put gasoline on this fire.”

Bendorf noted the low reading levels of many students, which she sees firsthand when they enter her classroom. She said schools need to narrow their focus to academic skills instead of becoming distracted by other mandates — even mental health, as compelling as that issue is.

“I am a teacher and teachers, sure, would love a raise,” she said, referring to the proposed tax. “But we would love other things even more.” She listed, among them: raising expectations for student behavior and supporting teachers when they make decisions concerning students.

The candidates were asked about a law awaiting the governor’s signature that would allow religious chaplains on campus. All four said they would move cautiously before allowing any such arrangement in Hillsborough.

Two other candidates in the race, Alene Atkins and Ashley Hartfield-Viewins, did not attend.