MANATEE -- There's no issue more important to Manatee County School Board watchdog Norm Nelson right now than school funding.
"We need the money. I looked at all the data the school provides," said Nelson, who worked with the Manatee County School District to help identify where new schools are needed for to account for growth. "We need money, capital money. We need a lot of work at the schools."
Nelson contends school board members can't see that need clearly, and they're hurting students in the long run by not cashing in on as much money available to them as possible.
At issue is the school district's current half-cent sales tax, which sunsets in 2017. Although board members say they want to extend the tax -- which brings in about $30 million annually for the district -- they haven't taken formal action to put the referendum on a ballot for voters. And they have yet to start a public campaign to let voters know why they believe the sales tax is essential for the district.
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In the next five years, the district may need a new high school and a new elementary school to help deal with its growing student population, as more homes spring up in Manatee County. The number of residential permits for the 2015-2016 Manatee County fiscal year is up 33 percent from a year ago, a pace that doesn't show signs of slowing.
Approvals for subdivision plats in Manatee County have also been on the rise the past three years. At the start of the fourth quarter of 2015, 54 housing subdivisions were under construction or selling homes countywide.
Some individual homebuilders have noted record sales of late. Neal Communities, Manatee County's largest homebuilder, set an all-time sales record in 2015, selling 1,107 houses.
Millions of dollars at stake
A new high school can cost between $80 million and $100 million; a new elementary school would likely cost the district around $30 million, the equivalent of what the district brings in each year from the sales tax revenue.
The lack of action on the sales-tax issue has started to worry school board members Charlie Kennedy and Bob Gause, who have said repeatedly at meetings they want to approve asking voters for an extension sooner than later. They said they feel they need to begin talking to voters about why the sales tax is important and to explain exactly how the district would spend the money.
"The board has to act before expiration so there is no interruption in revenue to our students," Kennedy said. "Since the school district is now under stable leadership, and has implemented strong internal controls, we are more poised than ever."
School district spokesman Mike Barber said a formal vote will likely come before the board in April or May.
For the referendum to make it on the ballot in time for the November election, a resolution from the school board must be sent to the Supervisor of Elections office by Aug. 22, according to the elections office. The office places the order for the November ballot immediately after the Aug. 30 primaries, ensuring it is included on ballots in time for early voting.
Impact fees issue
Confounding the issue for many is how the school board handled a vote to reinstate impact fees, which are collected on newly constructed homes in the county to help pay for growth.
The school district can use the school impact fees to build new schools, add on to existing schools, or buy more buses.
After a mandated study recommended the maximum allowable fees, Superintendent Diana Greene recommended the board reinstate the fees over a three-year period, collecting 50 percent of the maximum allowable amount the first year, 75 percent the second year and 100 percent starting in the third year and onward.
In November, the board added a caveat saying that if voters extended the sales tax, the impact fee collection rate would drop back to 50 percent of the maximum allowable amount.
The 50 percent collection rate is expected to bring in about $6.6 million to the school district in the first year, according to official estimates. School impact fees will start being collected again beginning April 18.
The move puzzled many county commissioners -- who still signed off on the school board's decision -- and has puzzled some in the community, including Nelson.
"This is selling out," Nelson said. He believes the decision was made to appease local developers, who oppose the impact fees, calling them a tax.
Since the school board's decision, Nelson has spoken publicly at each and every school board meeting. He's created his own bright red shirt that asks the board to remove the caveat now. He's also dressed as a referee when he thought the board was struggling to get along with each other and work as a team. If they don't remove the impact fee caveat, he says, board members should resign their posts.
"How are we supposed to trust the board when you give away money like that?" he asked at the most recent board meeting.
Gause says he understands those who are frustrated by the board's move, but he's angry that people are actively campaigning against reinstating the sales tax. That, he says, will only harm students.
"I don't really understand the logic. How can you say you support the children and just ... I don't get that," he said.
At the same time, county officials have formed a financial advisory committee to explore new revenue sources for the county. And it is also looking at the benefits a sales tax referendum could provide for the county. Last week, the committee heard from administrators in three other counties who touted the benefits the sales tax money provides the counties.
With the current sales tax for the school district, the sales tax rate stands at 6.5 percent in Manatee County, and would drop to 6 percent if the board allows the sales tax to lapse.
As Nelson and others question the board's decisions, Kennedy cautioned that if the sales tax is on the ballot in November, voters shouldn't punish the students just because they're upset with the board.
"If you don't agree with the impact fee caveat, don't punish the children, punish the board," Kennedy said.
-- Business reporter Matt M. Johnson contributed to this report.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.