School district to consider half cent sales-tax plan
The Lee County School District is expected to consider a sales tax initiative on Tuesday. Superintendent Greg Adkins has proposed that the school board call for a special election on May 15 for voters to decide whether they are willing to pay an extra half-cent in sales tax to fund capital projects such as new schools.
The board met this week to discuss whether they were in support of that sales tax referendum. Six of the seven board members were in support of the plan.
"We believe if people are informed, then it's undeniable that it's the right way to go," said Steven Teuber, District 4 School Board member. "We want voters to understand why we're doing it, why it's a good decision and we want to be able to answer any questions that they bring to us."
The board did not formally vote Tuesday. It will continue the discussion on Jan. 23 when members are also expected to vote on whether to proceed. Over the past year, the district increased by 1,800 students, and members of the board say they anticipate this growth yearly. However, there is no extra funding in the formula that pays for this growth, they maintain. Ten years ago, the district was bringing in a capital budget of $318 million per year. Now, the capital budget is $118 million, $200 million less than it was before.
According to the tax plan formula presented at this week's meeting, the sales tax is a viable income stream to help contribute to the costs of new constructions and renovations, which is expected to be about $401 million over the next five years. This includes the construction of seven new schools, an expansion to a high school and the renovation of two schools to accommodate the fast-growing county.
The plan also predicts a potential $59 million in sales tax revenue annually. The money brought in with the sales tax would help cover capital improvements, which includes maintenance, school buses, technology equipment, fixtures and so on. The board's debt service is now $84 million per year. Teuber says that continuing to borrow money is not favorable because they have to focus on paying more money to the banks for paying off their debt, rather than putting that money into classrooms and toward the students' education.
"If you're going to go buy something, is it better to buy with credit, or is it better to buy it with money you already have?" Teuber said. "When kids come to our door, we have to have a seat for them, that's the law and that's what's right. So, we have to buy the seats."
Of Florida's 67 counties, 61 have some type of additional sales tax, officials said. Being that Lee County is one of the fastest-growing populations in the country, members of the board feel it is necessary to join the other 61 with this sales tax to accommodate the extreme growth in population.
"I just hope people understand that we take bringing forward a referendum for a tax increase very seriously, and if we had another way to do it, we would," Teuber said. "We've never asked for money for operating, this is the first time the Lee County School District has come for a referendum in the 16 years that I have been in the school district. When the state legislature tells you 'You're on your own, everyone else has the problem solved,' then that's when we have to do what we have to."
One issue is the call for a special election for voters to weigh in on the tax plan.
There have been some concerns from the public as to why the district is planning to spend money on a special election, which could cost $880,000 or more when there are Primary and General Elections coming up in August and November.
The November General Election ballot will include nine very complex issues from the Constitution Revision Commission, as well as candidates running for different positions, including the run for Florida governor. School board members are concerned with voters being occupied with the other very important issues raised on the ballot, and not being fully informed about this tax plan decision.
"We want the voters to go into that voting booth with only one issue on that ballot," Teuber said. "We want the public to be fully aware that if we don't get the sales tax, we're going to have to borrow, and our future generations of citizens are going to have to pay that burden. So that's why having a special election is necessary for this issue."
The board will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, in the board meeting room at the Lee County School District Office, 2855 Colonial Blvd.