110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
By Al Everson
posted Mar 26, 2014 - 11:20:37am
The Volusia County School Board and its allies are going all out to build support for continuing the half-cent local-option sales tax for schools.
Just a little more than five months remain before Volusia County residents will vote on the tax in the Aug. 26 primary, and the campaign for the voters’ hearts and minds has already begun.
“We want to provide a quality education system,” Superintendent Margaret Smith said.
Smith said tourists can help area residents do that.
“Generally, about 35 percent of that tax is paid by visitors,” she said.
Smith and School Board members are trying to get out the word about the sales-tax referendum when they speak before business and civic organizations. The School Board gave its blessing — but no money — to the creation of a political-action committee to press for passage of the tax proposition.
That PAC, Citizens for Excellent Schools, bears the same name of the organization that worked for the 2001 school sales-tax referendum. Citizens for Excellent Schools may raise private funds for the campaign to get out the vote to continue the tax.
The politics of education
The School Board is seeking voters’ approval to extend the half-cent sales tax for another 15 years, beginning in 2017. The half-penny tax was first levied Jan. 1, 2002, and it will expire Dec. 31, 2016, unless a majority of voters want to keep the tax in effect.
The money can’t be used to pay teachers or operate schools, but only for capital needs, such as building or rebuilding school buildings, or outfitting the buildings.
The ballot question is simple: “Shall an extension of the one-half cent school capital outlay sales surtax that expires on December 31, 2016, be authorized for an additional fifteen (15) year levy by the School Board of Volusia County beginning January 1, 2017, to finance school security and technology capital improvements and construction of other school capital projects, including construction, additions, renovations and replacements?”
Each voter may mark his or her ballot “For the one-half cent tax” or “Against the one-half cent tax.”
Passage is not a sure thing. In 2012, Volusia County voters turned down the School Board’s request for a 0.25-mill property-tax levy. That tax, had it been approved, would have garnered about $6 million for the school system. The proposition failed by approximately 1,000 votes countywide.
If approved, the half-cent sales tax will fund a $480 million capital program that includes completely replacing five schools, repairing and upgrading scores of existing buildings, adding new facilities, and installing new technology and security systems at all schools.
The sales tax, according to School District officials, will yield approximately $32 million each year.
Something for everyone
The Volusia School District has 69 regular public schools and eight charter schools, and School Board members vow that each and every school will benefit if voters extend the extra sales tax.
The half-cent was originally added to back a $461 million bond issue that enabled the School District to complete a capital-improvement program within 10 years. The tax has a 15-year lifespan for paying off the bonds.
Among tangible results of that first round were the rebuilding of DeLand High School, and construction of University High School in Orange City and Spirit Elementary School in Deltona.
The fact that schools were built and successfully rebuilt, and that classrooms were added at other schools formerly overcrowded, is the basis of one of the School Board’s talking points in trying to sell an extension of the sales tax.
“We kept the promise. We did what we said we would do,” Dr. Smith said.
How will the money be spent?
To prove it plans to repeat its track record, the School Board has adopted a specific building program compiled by a committee appointed by the board last year. That committee, known as the Citizens’ Capital Needs Committee, recommended the following projects and expenditures:
• Security will be beefed up in all schools and even school buses, including fencing, surveillance cameras, electronic locking systems, school-visitor management systems, and panic buttons. The estimated cost is $45 million.
• Technology upgrades and retrofits in all schools and the school-district offices will cost about $135 million.
• Science classrooms in all middle schools will be remodeled at an estimated cost of $8 million.
• Five schools will be rebuilt or replaced: Pierson/Seville Elementary, Chisholm Elementary, Deltona Middle, George Marks Elementary and Tomoka Elementary. The bond issue would allocate $111 million for these projects.
• Athletic fields and tracks at all high schools will be improved at a cost of $15 million.
• Major renovations, such as new roofs, walls, electrical upgrades, HVAC systems, lighting, and new doors and windows, will take place, at a cost of $100 million.
• Just to be on the safe side, the capital program has a cushion of $66 million for contingencies and inflation.
Will the bond program, if adopted by a majority of the county’s voters, be subject to change, perhaps by moving some monies to other unlisted projects?
“We’ve submitted it. We’ve voted for it. There can’t be any changes,” School Board Chairwoman Candace Lankford said. “No changes can be made at this time. We accepted the recommendations.”
A second chance for the tax question?
Asked if the School Board is staging the sales-tax referendum two years before the actual expiration because that would allow time to come back to the voters in 2016, just before the tax expires, Lankford replied, “We’ve never discussed it.”
She said, “We’ve never had that conversation. Facilities take so much planning, and when we plan facilities, it’s a five-year plan. We didn’t want to wait.”
Also, by putting the referendum on the Aug. 26 primary ballot, the School Board will avoid the expense of calling a special election for the sales-tax referendum.
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