This November, voters in Alachua County will have the opportunity to approve a Half-Cent Sales Tax, which will be dedicated to funding infrastructure improvements in our K-12 public schools. The purpose of this article is to answer four fundamental questions about the initiative and hopefully earn your support.
I already pay taxes; why do schools need additional funds?
It is important to know that public schools are largely dependent on State dollars to fund infrastructure needs, which include routine repairs (updating air conditioners, replacing roofs), remodeling classrooms, expanding cafeterias/media centers, as well as constructing new facilities. Over the past 10 years, State infrastructure funding for public schools has been dramatically reduced. In Alachua County alone, funding has been cut by over $168 million.
Schools also receive funding from property taxes. However, several years ago the State reduced and capped what counties could levy for their schools. As a result, there is no ability for additional funding via property taxes, even if the community wanted to do so. In short, this is not an issue of mismanagement of funds, but rather a drastic reduction in funding as a result of decisions made in Tallahassee.
The evidence of these cuts is plain in every school in our district. School Board staff spent the summer remediating mold that was growing as a result of leaky roofs. There is an ever-increasing number of portable classrooms at every school as we have no funds to build permanent space. These portables are expensive to move, energy inefficient, deteriorate faster than permanent structures, and are less safe.
Schools across the district have to begin lunch service before 10 a.m. as a result of increasing enrollment and insufficient cafeteria space. Air conditioners constantly break down and science lab space in a majority of our high schools is too constricted and ill-equipped for our students to conduct even rudimentary hands-on experiments. And the condition of restrooms throughout our schools can be summed up in a single word: Yuck. Our school district doesn’t have ample funding presently to keep up with the swelling maintenance needs that result from the age of our facilities, much less anything left for classroom renovations, technological improvements, or increased safety measures. The situation is dire and is only getting worse in time.
Won’t additional taxes make us uncompetitive in terms of attracting consumers and businesses to our community?
No. In fact, every county that surrounds Alachua is already charging a sales tax rate of 7 cents while we are at 6 ½ presently. Furthermore, over 20 counties throughout Florida have already passed a local option sales tax to address the infrastructure needs in their local schools. If anything, a valid argument can be made that should we fail to invest in our schools, we’ll be at a competitive disadvantage to those counties who have wisely already decided to come up with a local solution.
I don’t have any kids or grandkids in local schools, why should I care?
Putting aside the fundamental argument that our schools are a reflection of our community’s values, today’s students are tomorrow’s employees, nurses, police officers and teachers. Failure to invest in our students impacts all of us. Furthermore, sending our children to schools that are falling apart around them sends a message that is counter to the idea that a good education is the foundation of a successful life. Additionally, the benefit that a sales tax has over a property tax is that roughly 30 percent of funds raised by a sales tax comes from dollars spent in our community by non-residents. This is, therefore, the most efficient means of funding improvements. It will also be great for our economy in the short term, ensuring hundreds of jobs for local contractors and tradesmen for years to come.
I don’t trust how government spends my money now, what guarantees do I have that this money won’t just go to pet projects of the School Board members and staff?
The ballot initiative includes a provision that a Citizens Oversight Committee must be created to guarantee that this measure benefits ALL public schools in our district. A list of priority projects for each school is available on the District’s website (www.sbac.edu) and www.yesforalachuaschools.com. Given the nature of infrastructure projects, the progress we make will be clearly visible to the entire community.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a huge supporter of public schools (you likely gleaned that by now). I grew up going to Terwilliger, Fort Clarke and Buchholz, as well as Camp Crystal every summer. My children attend J. J. Finley and Westwood. I’m incredibly grateful for the teachers and staff who helped me get off to a great start as a kid and to those who educate my kids today. These people, and the students they serve, deserve better.
You can help. Please vote YES for the Half-Cent Sales Tax this November to support a generation of children and perpetuate the bright future of this community.
Brian Scarborough is a lifelong Gainesville resident, Chair of the Yes for Alachua Schools Initiative, and a father to two wonderful public school students.