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Guest Opinion: District rebuts legislative delegation’s ‘inaccurate information’

February 14, 2018
North Fort Myers Neighbor

The Lee County School Board is committed to giving our community factually accurate information so that voters and taxpayers can make informed decisions in regards to their school district, and the education of our children.

Today we find ourselves in the unfortunate position of having to correct inaccurate information that was provided by the Southwest Florida legislative delegation in The Breeze on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018.

We have taken their comments (see below in italics) and addressed them point by point.

-"We've offered them numerous options to solve the challenge and they have rejected them all out of hand."

FACT: The School District of Lee County has taken each and every suggestion made by our state delegation and either implemented them, or determined they are simply not feasible. We are committed to solving the capital funding crisis we face that resulted from decreases in traditional sources of revenue from the state.

-"During the recession, the school district's leaders asked the Legislature to lower the local capital tax rate from 2.0 to 1.5 and apply the 0.5 to operating revenue."

FACT: While the School Board did not ask, we did take advantage of the opportunity to increase the operating tax rate and reduce the capital rate for one year only during the recession as a temporary measure to save jobs. This was never meant to be a long-term solution to an ongoing problem. The School Board has publicly advocated for increasing the capital tax rate back to 2.0 since 2011 and the legislature has declined this request each and every year. As our state is dead last in state funding provided to education, we would not advocate permanently taking from one source to give to another. The School Board did take advantage of the opportunity to increase the operating tax rate and reduce the capital rate during the recession as a temporary measure to save jobs. This was for one year only, and was never viewed to be a long term solution to an ongoing problem.

-"We offered to give them authority to levy impact fees without going through the BoCC. They turned that down."

FACT: This violates the Florida Constitution. School Boards do not have the constitutional authority to impose a fee at the time a building permit is issued. Only county and municipal governments have that constitutional authority. Also, even if the school district were to take over the collection of impact fees at the full suggested rate, this would account for $44 million of the $478 million shortfall. That satisfies only 10 percent of the capital need.

- "The tax increase being requested is 3.8% of a $1.5 billion budget. If constraints are as they have been represented, then the District has a far more systemic problem than a 3.8% increase in taxes will solve."

FACT: The School District has 2 different pots of money - capital and operating. State law requires us to use capital dollars only for expenditures like new construction, renovations and maintenance, safety and security upgrades and technology improvements. Revenue from the sales can only be used for these types of expenditures.

This year our capital budget is $133-million. If the sales tax passes, that would be 44 percent of budget, far more than the 3.8 percent figure given by our legislators. Simply put, this revenue addresses the systemic decrease in state funding public education has received over the past 10 years.

- "We offered to do a sales tax swap in exchange for eliminating the 1.5 mills in capital, which would net them more money. They turned that down."

The proposal was to levy a one cent sales tax, which would gain $118 million in revenue, and give up 1.5 mills in capital, which would reduce $118 million in revenue. This is clearly not a viable solution.

- "We offered to help them build more high schools in partnership with FSW and K-8 teaching schools with FGCU, which we could fund from the state budget. They did nothing but say it was a nice idea for the last 3 years."

We have very strong relationships with both FGCU and FSW and are currently in partnership for innovative teaching models.

However, neither school can partner with us to build seven new schools with us in the next five years, which is what we need to accommodate our growth.

In addition, maintenance of existing schools, safety and security needs, and technology upgrades generate a significant amount of our funding gap, something these institutions cannot help us with.

- "They complain that they are stuck with debt from before the recession. A huge chunk of that pays off in less than three years."

Over the next 10 years, our debt service payments are between $36 and $51 million. Without an additional revenue source, the district will increase borrowing by at least $316 million to fund needed schools. That would increase our debt service payments to between $30 and $62 million, until 2040 at the earliest. Those are millions of dollars going to a bank, rather than being used in our classrooms.

-"They project a huge growth challenge, but the South zone is built out and the West zone is almost built out. This is an acute challenge in the East zone."

Our East zone is growing the fastest, and we project building a high school, middle school, and elementary school there. The South is growing fast, as well. 35 percent of the impact fees collected last year were from the South zone, so it is not yet "built out."

In addition, while certain areas may be "built out," the growth in our student population is coming from resale of existing homes, not just construction of new homes. And, the issues of needed maintenance, security, and technology exists in all locations.

- "They already could ask for a separate .5 mills to pay capital bond debt, which expires when the debt is paid off. They turned that down."

This option is a voter referendum, just like the sales tax. The difference is, the bond option is a property tax, the cost of which is completely borne by Lee County taxpayers. We believe a better option is to do a voter referendum for a sales tax. This is much like funding our need at a 30 percent discount, since that 30 percent will be paid for by tourists. Also, the sales tax will sunset in 10 years.

Here is the bottom line: Florida is dead last in state spending on education for seven years running. We have lost $200 million in capital dollars over the last 10 years, while growing by more than 22,000 students. We expect approximately 1800 new students - the size of a school - to enter our system each year for the next 10 years. It is time for us to take control and provide local solutions.

Research shows that a successful, high quality public education system is THE most important single economic driver in a community. It promotes higher incomes, better jobs, and healthy growth, and increased property values. Businesses, professionals, and highly skilled workers relocate to communities based on the merits of the school system, both for their children and for future employees. A high quality school system benefits everyone's bottom line.

-Submitted by Lee County School Board Members:

Cathleen O'Daniel Morgan, Chair; Pam LaRiviere, Vice Chair; Steven K. Teuber; Chris Patricca; Melisa Giovannelli; Mary Fischer; and Dr. Jane Kuckel



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