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Updated: 03/22/2014 08:00:00AM

Tax hike could be answer

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Faced with mounting school facilities maintenance issues that total $274 million, the Polk County School Board Tuesday hinted at a possible tax hike as the only way to alleviate what one school official said was a bleak situation.

“These aren’t wants,” said Greg Rivers who oversees the school district’s operations, “These are needs.”

Rivers cited the need for new roofs, air conditioning system replacements, upgrades to cafeteria equipment including freezers and coolers and a litany of other outstanding requirements to keep schools up to date and secure.

“This is a very bleak picture,” Rivers told the board. “Very bleak.”

Much of the paltry $28.5 million in capital outlay funds available is earmarked for debt service, to repay bonds the board issued several years ago when income was flush and new facilities were needed. “That leaves us only about $3 million to keep up the schools,” Rivers said.

That has to be spread across the district’s 166 schools. Among those getting minor repairs are Bartow High School, which will get only enough money to redo student restrooms and some repairs to the auditorium, even though the district staff says it needs nearly $5 million in work. Bartow Middle School will get zip over the next five years, even though some $6 million in renovations have been identified, according to the detailed report Rivers submitted to the board. Bartow Elementary Academy has more than a million dollars in needs, but will get $120,000 to replace freezers and coolers in the cafeteria. Union Academy is in better shape, according to Rivers’ report, with less than a million in need, but will also only get new cafeteria equipment.

One of the schools with the most issues, Rivers explained, is Eastside Elementary School in Haines City where, according to School Board Member Debra Wright, the cafeteria is aging and in need of replacement. Only new sidewalks and cafeteria equipment will fit into the budget, River said, to the tune of $140,000 when overall $5.5 million is needed. “I know how bad the needs are there,” Wright said. “I know how serious this is and it will take a ton of money to address them.”

Another big chunk of the capital outlay fund has to go to replace the air conditioning systems in Haines City High School, which Rivers said will cost about $8 million and similar costs are cited for Lake Gibson High.

Superintendent of Schools Kathryn LeRoy said she and Board Member Hugh Berryman had met with the Polk County legislative delegation, the state House appropriations chairman and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam to discuss the situation.

“We talked with anyone who would listen,” LeRoy said. “But we weren’t he only ones. There are many districts in the same situation.”

Rivers also told the board that Gov. Scott’s plan to divvy up $80 million in Public Education Capital Outlay funds will only bring about $2 million into Polk’s strained coffers.

“This is all we have to work with,” said Rivers. “It is critical that we pursue raising the sales tax to generate additional funds.”

The school board levied 2 mills in property taxes for school capital project until 2009, when the levy was reduced to 1.5 mills. That means, a property owner was paying $200 in taxes to the schools on a $100,000 property five years ago, which dropped to $150.

Rivers told the board: “Most of our critical needs are due to systems that are way beyond their useful service life and are close to failing. These things are desperately needed right now. We just don’t have any money to pay for them.

“It is critical for us as a district to pursue the renewal of the sales tax referendum after it expires in 2019,” the operations director said. “I just don’t know what other fund source we would have to tap into.”

The sales tax earns the school board one-half cent of the county’s 7 percent levied on taxable purchases made in the county.

LeRoy also told the board that despite their lobbying efforts thus far, it would be unlikely the Legislature would take steps to raise taxes this year.

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