School district prepares to educate voters ahead of sales tax vote

Superintendent Diana Greene makes a comment as the 2016-17 budget expenditures and revenues are presented to the school board during a recent workshop at the School Support Center in Bradenton.
Superintendent Diana Greene makes a comment as the 2016-17 budget expenditures and revenues are presented to the school board during a recent workshop at the School Support Center in Bradenton.

As voters mull whether to renew the existing half-cent sales tax to benefit the Manatee County School District in November, officials are gathering and disseminating educational materials about their plan for the money.

Superintendent Diana Greene has already started talking to local organizations, educating them about how officials would use the money to benefit students if the extension is passed in November.

“We’re on the right path right now. That’s our main message,” Greene said, citing academic and financial improvements in the past three years for the school district.

The school district’s request is one of two half-cent sales tax initiatives voters will see on the ballot in November. The county is also asking voters to approve a new half-cent sales tax to benefit county projects.

The school district tax has been in place for the past 14 years and will expire at the end of 2017. The district would like to collect the money — about $30 million a year — for another 15 years.

‘Right path, right now’

With a rocky financial record in the past few years, Greene said she understands why voters might be skeptical of renewing the half-cent sales tax for the district. That’s why her message is all about the here and now.

“We have moved beyond that,” Greene said, adding that there are always areas to continue to improve but that’s part of a good organization.

This year will mark the second year in a row the district has satisfied a state-mandated amount of money in savings, Greene said, and she added the district is slowly making academic gains with student scores and graduation rates.

School Board members are working together collaboratively. The district’s independent audit committee has agreed to take on the watchdog role for the extension of the sales tax, making sure the district does what it says it will do with the money.

All of these things, Greene said, show the district is on the right path, right now.

“We are doing the things that good organizations do,” she said.

Priority No. 1 for the district is a new high school in Parrish, Greene said. After that, there’s a lot of deferred maintenance left over from the economic recession, some “nuts and bolts” projects, she said.

“We know today that we have had delayed maintenance for many of our schools, and we can no longer delay that maintenance for those schools,” she said, adding many roofs and heating/air-conditioning systems need to be brought up to speed.

Security cameras that were first installed in some schools in 2004 are now 12 years old and out of date, Greene said. Classroom technology needs to be brought up to date to best help students learn for the 21st century.

The sales tax helps achieve those goals, she said.

‘Already spending it’

When people think about the school district sales tax on a personal level, instead of the $30 million a year number, it often ends up being a no-brainer decision, school board member Bob Gause said at a meeting.

Gause gave an example. If he spends $500 a month in Manatee County “on stuff,” he contributes $2.50 to the sales tax. If he spends $500 a month for a year, that’s $30 from his pocket to bring $30 million to students in Manatee County.

“When you start putting it into terms like that, generally speaking when I talk to people about that they say well it’s a no-brainer, of course I’m going to give that little bit of money to make sure the students in this community have decent facilities I’m already spending it and I don’t mind continuing to spend it,” Gause said.

School board members and officials have routinely said the extension of the sales tax for the school district is critical, especially while the board was discussing whether to reinstate impact fees, collected on new housing developments.

Impact fees can only be used on projects related to growth and can’t be used to help fund maintenance and repair on existing facilities. Use of sales tax funding is much more flexible.

At one point, in an effort get more support for the sales tax, the board put a caveat in its impact fees request, saying that if voters extended the half-cent sales tax, the district would only ask for 50 percent of the maximum allowed impact fee amount.

After community outcry, with members of the public seeing the caveat as a deal for developers and threatening to vote down the sales tax extension, the board reversed course.

Between now and the vote, the district is working on a website to house education materials and information and is conducting training for various officials within the district so they can speak knowledgeably to the community and those interested. Fliers and other handouts are also in the works, she said.

“You’ve been relying on a funding source for now close to 15 years, it becomes a part of what you do. If it was to stop at the end of 2017, it would be a major crater in our capital funding,” Greene said. “It definitely will be painful if we do not extend that surtax.”

Meghin Delaney: 941-745-7081, @MeghinDelaney