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Trust And The School Tax.

Brevard-Public-Schools-Chalkboard-ROHOne of the more contentious and discussed items for the upcoming election is the vote by Brevard County voters on increasing the sales tax by 1/2 a percent. The additional money would go to schools and be applied to various projects.

Here is the text of the referendum:

SCHOOL BOARD REFERENDUM

One-Half Cent Sales Surtax for Critical School Facilities Renewal, School Security and Technology Upgrades.

Would you support the School Board levying a one-half cent surtax on sales in Brevard County beginning 1/1/15, for a period of six years, to be used exclusively for critical school facility renewal projects, school security and technology upgrades? A needs based prioritized list of projects has been published and expenditures will be monitored by an independent citizen oversight committee.

In a faery tale world where everything was perfect and people could be trusted, this would be a no brainer. Who doesn’t want the schools to be the best they can be? Who doesn’t want kids to be taught in schools that are well maintained? Who doesn’t want to believe that the money raised from this tax increase will be used to prevent and solve issues?

In that perfect world, everyone would stand, shout and agree “it’s for the kids.”

But this is not a perfect world and there are many questions to be raised about this sales tax increase.

THE HISTORY:

First: Recent Facility Upgrades

• In 1999 & 2000 there were roof replacement projects for school facilities.
• From 2005-2012 there was the 7+ year $900M facilities plan, when funds were spent on new facilities, additions, theaters, technology and so on, and debt was incurred.

Second: Revenue

• Federal, state & local revenues: The federal percentage has increased over the years, and in FY12-13, 13% of revenues was federal, 49% state and 38% local revenue. These figures vary, but federal involvement, through both funding and mandates like Common Core, has increased over the years.
• Local Property Tax Revenues: 2008 was the pinnacle for school tax revenues, when the taxable assessed value reached $41B. In 2012, the taxable value hit $27.5B, and in 2014, the proposed taxable value is $31.2B, up 14% over 2012, as assessed values have increased over the last two years.
• Three Brevard Public Schools (BPS) taxing authorities currently appear on our tax bills: 1 is set by the state, and the other two have maximums
set by the state. The 2014 total proposed millage rate will be 3.5% lower than last year’s rate.
• Additional levies are permitted by state law, such as the capital improvement discretionary millage, when BPS added the .25 mil from 2009-2012.

Third: Debt

• By law, there are several types of debt that can be incurred, but the most impactful is the COP related debt, because it allows districts to be released from restrictions as to the amount of debt that can be incurred, and COPs do not require voter approval.
• What is the debt level in BPS? Fitch ratings in April 2013 stated that our district had a “total overall debt” of over $645M.

There are a great number of questions as to how responsibly the School Board has spent in the past and the question must be asked whether the School Board can be trusted with spending given increased revenues.

THE MONEY:

The language of the referendum says that the additional funds raised would go to specific projects which have been prioritized to address the most pressing needs first.

Our concern is not what is stated for the monies, but what is not stated.

And there is history to that as well.

Years ago when the residents of the state voted for the Florida lottery, it was proposed that the majority of the money would go to fund education. The sales pitch was that the schools in the state would get the revenue from the lottery allowing increase in teachers’ pay, facilities upgrades, etc. For the most part the lottery money has gone into the schools. However, what was cut was the underlying funding. While people looked at the lottery as a way to supplement and increase spending on schools, the lottery money actually replaced money that would have had to have been budgeted.

For example, if the state had planned on budgeting and spending $100 on widgets for schools, people expected the state to maintain the funding for the widgets and use the lottery money for other projects. Instead, the state cut funding for the widgets and used the lottery money to buy widgets. The cut funds went elsewhere.

The same thing can happen with the sales tax money in Brevard County.

As far as we can determine, the School Board has not committed to maintaining the same level of funding for capital improvements as they exist now. People we have talked to all believe that the additional monies raised by the sales tax increase would be added to the budgeted capital improvement funds to take care of the needs listed in the referendum. However, the School Board has not vowed to maintain the same base level of funding for capital improvements as a dollar amount or a percentage of the budget. The result is that the School Board can basically not fund capital improvements, using the money for other things, and use the sales tax money for the capital improvements.

We aren’t saying that will happen, but rather there is nothing to prevent it from happening. Voters seem to want to believe that the monies raised will be added to the capital improvement funding now, but there is no language in the referendum or commitment from the School Board to insure that would happen.

THE TRUST ISSUE:

One of the biggest reasons people are against the sales tax is a lack of trust based on the history of the School Board’s budgeting practices in the past.

To combat the trust issue, the referendum mandates an “independent citizens oversight committee.” (ICOC) The proposed charter of the committee is not yet completed, but it looks impressive until one realizes that the ICOC is a toothless tiger.

Under the proposed charter, the ICOC can look at expenditures and if irregularities are found, the ICOC can report the irregularities to the School Board (the same group that would have approved the irregularity in the first place,) make non-binding recommendations to the school board, and or request an independent audit of expenditures which does not have to be done unless approved by the School Board and at taxpayer expense.

What is lacking in the ICOC Charter is any enforcement whatsoever. If the ICOC finds a department, administrator, school, contractor, or whomever spent funds inappropriately, there is no penalties or actions the ICOC can cause to be implemented.

None.

We are not persuaded that the ICOC would benefit the taxpayers in making sure the money was spent correctly. The ICOC may be well intentioned, but without the teeth of enforcement, they will simply be rubber stampers.


LENGTH OF THE TAX:

Adding to the trust issue is the length of the tax. The referendum states the tax increase will be for six years and that is correct. However, at a September 16, 2014 forum sponsored by the Florida Today, Adrian Laffitte, chair of the Brevard Save Our Students committee, said the object of the referendum was to let the citizens see the monies would be well spent, and then come back to extend or make permanent the sales tax increase. Once again, most people think that the sales tax is only for six years but the long term goal is to make the tax permanent.


SCHOOL CLOSURES:

The threat of school closures is part of what is driving the proposed tax increase. There is little doubt of that and it is ridiculous to think that the School District is not holding school closures over the heads of voters.

This past Tuesday, the School Board released “clusters” of schools that would be impacted by closing one of the schools in the cluster.

In the south beach area, the schools on the list are Gemini, Holland, Indialantic, Ocean Breeze, Sea Park and Surfside.

In the north beach and Merritt Island areas, the schools on the list are Audubon, Cape View, Carroll, Mila, Roosevelt and Tropical.

Politically, this is a great move for the supporters of the tax increase. Instead of the parents and children of two schools being worried about their local school being closed, now all 12 schools are worried that they could be closed if the tax increase doesn’t pass. The problem we have with this strategy is that we can’t find anyone who doesn’t think the School District doesn’t know at this moment what schools would be closed. Why is a School Board who wants to re-establish trust with citizens using fear to get a sales increase passed?

If the sales tax increase does pass, does that mean the schools are safe from closing?

To answer that, unfortunately we are going to turn to Satellite Beach City Manager Courtney Barker. (We say “unfortunately” because we have had disagreements with Ms. Barker but in this case we aren’t disputing her actions, but rather using her words. Our commentary is not about Barker.)

At the City Council meeting of October 15, Ms. Barker told the City Council that she had spoken with the School District who told her that if the sales tax increase was passed, there would be no school closings which would “save” Sea Park Elementary in Satellite Beach.

Ms. Barker repeated the statement on the Satellite Beach City Manager Facebook page:

SCHOOLS HALF CENT SALES TAX: By now you have probably heard that our community schools have been identified for possible closure if the School Sales Tax does not pass. I believe a school closure in our community would be tragic. I believe it will affect our quality of life, and may affect our property values and the desire for some people to move into our community. As a City Manager, I can sympathize with the Superintendent in his need for revenue. The School Board experienced six years of drastic revenue reductions, and now they are asking for six years of additional revenue (sales tax) to catch up on six years worth of deferred capital projects. The School Board has reduced their request for the half cent sales tax to six years, and implemented a Citizens Oversight Committee to oversee the spending of the revenue. Please get educated on the tax and the expected projects. I received confirmation from the Superintendent and the Facilities Department that the staff will not be asking for school closures if the sales tax passes, and that any future closures would be for financial reasons only (if the sales tax does not pass). Please review this website for information so you can make an informed decision at the polls:

http://capitalprojects.brevardschools.org/default.aspx

(emphasis ours)

In April of 2014, the School Board released a policy and analysis of potential school closings.

School district leaders have said that as many as four more schools could close if the half-cent sales tax fails in November. Some of those schools would require the use portable classrooms at nearby schools in order to accommodate incoming students.

School Board Chair Karen Henderson said that the [closure] policy is not just preparation for if the tax fails, however.

Officials could use the policy regardless of the tax vote, she pointed out, using it to close schools for efficiency purposes, such as declining enrollment or if the costs of building repair grew too great. (emphasis ours)

Henderson’s statement contradicts the assurances given to Barker and people looking to avoid a school being closed.

Is it more likely that schools will close absent an increase in the sales tax? Yes. Will the sales tax prevent schools from closing as was guaranteed to Barker? Not according to Henderson.

Who should the people trust when the Superintendent and department head says one thing, and the Chairperson of the School Board says another?

The premise of this post was not to sway people to vote for or against the proposed tax increase. We wanted to give some background and let people decide on their own.

However, we did want to address the issue of trust in regard to the School Board and School District. Instead of seeing steps toward developing that trust, it seems the School District has done more to make people leery of trusting them

Whether it be conflicting statements on closures, fear mongering, a lack of a commitment to current capital funding levels, a lack of openness on the tax being permanent down the road, etc., we believe the School Board, District and Superintendent have moved further away from public trust.



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One Response to “Trust And The School Tax.”

  1. Taxed Man says:

    For people who supposedly care about the poor isn’t this tax going to adversely affect those most who are least able to afford it.

    The argument for the 1/2 cent sales tax increase is based solely on emotion and nothing else…”It’s for the children!”

    A self-inflicted “crisis” that they can’t let go to waste.

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