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Updated: 03/19/2014 08:00:02AM

Harris: Show people the peeling paint

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Because money is in short supply to pay for all Polk County school maintenance and academic needs, the Polk County Public Schools board at a retreat on Thursday, March 13 at the Circle Bar B Reserve, talked about launching an education campaign that could lead to both an increase in property taxes and an extension of the existing sales tax.

“Cow bingo won’t cover it all,” said School Board Chairman Dick Mullenax. “So we’ll have to do something else.”

That “something else” will (initially) be an education campaign to let taxpayers know about the school system’s $278 million in capital outlay meant for repairs to upgrade schools and academic needs, particularly to address “learning loss” students face during summer months.

“We need to collect pictures of the needs and show people paint peeling off walls and roofs that need fixing,” said Board Member Tim Harris, “

The board initially learned of the staggering needs at Tuesday’s board meeting. Those needs were reiterated at the retreat by schools operations chief Greg Rivers.

“The greatest challenge facing operations is the lack of funding,” Rivers said. He explained that without PECO (Public Education Capital Outlay) funds from the state to pay for new buildings or minor maintenance for two years, the district has been relying on money collected from the board’s half-cent sales tax levy. That sales tax will expire in 2018 and has been used to make up for the lack of state PECO money.

The district, according to Rivers, collects about $34 million annually from the sales tax, but most of it has been used for paying off loans taken out years ago to build new schools.

“That leaves us with only $36.5 million to use for school maintenance and capital projects over the next five years,” Rivers said. “Unless PECO starts flowing in big, big, big chunks, it’s critical for us as a district to pursue the renewal of the sales tax referendum after it expires. I don’t know what other fund source we could find to tap into.”

Board Member Hunt Berryman told the board that another school district had floated the idea of extending the sales tax. In that county voters “overwhelmingly” said they would approve a tax hike if they knew the school system was “using the money wisely.”

Mullenax said he believed that in time the Polk County Public Schools can also earn that trust.

“Taxpayers will support something that is effective,” Mullenax said. He indicated that Superintendent of Schools Kathryn LeRoy, still in her first year in the Polk schools leadership role, is building that trust. “We may be hitting a window where we will be more effective in a year or two.”

Mullenax added the board needed to kick off a marketing campaign now to earn the public’s trust and clearly show how great the district’s needs are.

“We haven’t done a very good job of telling our story,” added Board Member Debra Wright. “If we get the word out on how great the needs are, people will walk up to the table and want to help.”

Most of the discussion centered on extending the sales tax issue, but Berryman suggested raising the property tax millage rate should be considered. He said that adding one mill would generate another $25-$30 million annually.

“We could use most of it for academic improvements, but could set some aside for capital outlay,” he said.

Berryman also suggested the sales tax increase be initiated in two years and the continuation of the sales tax could follow in two more years.

“If we show that we are efficient in all ways and show academic improvement, I think we can pass this. I really do,” he said.

The board could take no official action since the meeting was for information and discussion only. Meanwhile, LeRoy was asked to prepare a list of exactly for what any additional revenues would be used. When that will be available was not determined at the retreat.

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