Schools seek renewal tax for capital

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners is expected to approve a local ballot referendum at Wednesday’s regular meeting that will allow the Monroe County School Board to seek voter approval for the extension of a half-cent capital improvements sales tax for another 10 years.

The school district is the recipient of one penny in sales tax yearly for capital projects. However, state rules allow the board to seek voter approval to shift a half-penny of that cent to general fund operations rather than capital projects.

Monroe County has received voter approval twice to shift that half-penny to operations. That approval is done every four years.

The remaining half cent for capital projects, which has raised more than $9 million yearly for the school district for more than a decade, is reauthorized by voter approval every 10 years.

The district has come under fire the last couple of years for shoddy oversight of the HOB school project, a project built using this capital money.

But construction funding isn’t the only benefit the district gets from the half-cent it seeks to renew, says board member John Dick.

“Some ask if we still need the capital for construction after new schools in several areas, and I would have to answer that right now we still need it,” he said. “We need to replace Plantation Key School, we still have enhancement work to do at Stanley Switlick and we have issues to address at Gerald Adams.”

But Dick believes the time may be coming when another extension of the tax may not be necessary.

“We address those things, watch what we’re doing and meet other capital needs with the remainder, and maybe we don’t have to ask for it again.”

Dick points out that the fund isn’t only for construction needs.

“The capital money can be used for any capital purchase that enhances the student learning experience. We will use the funds for technology improvements to keep our students up to date with ever-advancing technology so they’re ready to use those tools when they go out in the world. We’re not going to go out and chase the flavor of the day in technology because we can’t afford to keep up with that, but we can outfit our kids with the hardware and software needed to find their way around when the time comes.”

“We can also use the funds for replacement of busses and other transportation needs,” he said.

He says the important thing for voters to remember is that this is not a new tax.

The district has been collecting the tax for a long time, this vote will authorize the continued collection of that money, he says.

Should the district have a need in the future, the funds can also be used to pay down existing capital debt and relieve the general fund of that burden, he added.

“For the most part, the district’s construction program has been pretty accurate in predicting the needs of the student population,” Dick said. “We probably built too much for Marathon when we re-did those schools, but we can shuffle some of our own bricks and mortar needs and better utilize those buildings in the future, cutting back on any needs for administrative capital expenditures.”

With the use of technology, he said that decentralizing administrative functions can proceed so that suites of offices like the district has now in Key West may no longer be the norm in coming years.

“I would think very little in the way of actual paper passes from office to office in the district these days. Most of it transfers via electronic files and you can send and receive electronic files from any office,” Dick said.

If the county commission approves the placement of the referendum it will appear on the November general election ballot.

“I was adamant, and the rest of the board agreed, that we wanted this in November when the turnout is highest so we would get the best mix of voter approval. We want a clear mandate.”

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