Citizens accountability panel a key addition to school sales tax vote

The Manatee County School Board discusses whether to ask the Board of County Commissioners put a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot.
The Manatee County School Board discusses whether to ask the Board of County Commissioners put a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot. mdelaney@bradenton.com

Now it’s official. After abandoning the linkage between essential voter approval of the half-cent sales tax extension and the discount on impact fees required of residential and commercial construction, the Manatee County School Board sent the final referendum request to the county commission.

At the same time, the board introduced a very valuable element into the issue — one that should satisfy some of the public outrage over the lack of accountability and transparency and the appropriateness of the spending of the expiring sales tax dollars. This new development is much needed for a school district still contending with lingering public distrust over past financial disasters, budget deficits and abject mismanagement.

With passage of the sales tax renewal, the board pledged to create a Citizens Oversight Committee to help ensure the tax revenue is properly spent on specified projects. The school board did not include this component originally, an oversight given the district’s rather checkered history on sales tax spending and accusations of deceit and cronyism in the awarding of costly contracts for school construction and other projects.

Years ago, an important resident sales tax committee charged with budget oversight existed until being curiously disbanded in 2011. No viable explanation ever came. After that committee was dissolved, an audit of a 2009 sales tax bond found money was spent outside the explicit purpose of the bond. During that same investigation, the district uncovered irregularities in a 2008 construction contract award.

Moving forward, the community must be completely confident that sales tax revenue is spent judiciously with total transparency and accountability. The school board smartly included public oversight should the sales tax renewal pass.

In a fittingly unanimous vote Tuesday, the school board sent the resolution asking Manatee County commissioners to place the sales tax renewal on the November ballot. Per state law, the school board must seek commission approval, though that will just be a formality.

That BOCC vote will also terminate some commission opposition to the unpopular impact fee caveat, which the school board foolishly inserted into Superintendent Diana Greene’s recommendation of a simple 50, 75 and 100 percent glide path into the full fee as recommended by an independent consultant. At that January vote, the school board ignored Greene’s proposal and inexplicably added a caveat to keep impact fees at 50 percent but only with approval of the sales tax extension.

That misguided idea deservedly earned instant public scorn as a gift to developers and builders to gain their support for the sales tax vote — an unacceptable quid pro quo.

Now voters have a clean ballot issue to decide — one issue, not one conflated with another.

As this Editorial Board has recommended several times, the extension of the half-cent sales tax for another 15 years is vital to the education of the children of Manatee County. Impact fees will not bear the total burden of new schools, and a high school in Parrish is essential. The sales tax extension supplies some $30 million annually, a large portion paid by visitors.

Greene articulated this in a quote often seen on this page: “The school district benefits from impact fees; however, the school district cannot survive without a half-cent sales tax.”

Let’s not witness the collapse of our school district, a key domino that would knock over our children’s future, job growth, economic development and more. Vote yes come November.