Editorials

Manatee County school sales tax approval vital

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. gjefferies@bradenton.com

One of the questions on the November ballot should be a cinch. The impact of this particular tax vote is nothing — zero on everyone’s wallet. That figure bears repeating: Zero.

Zilch. Zip. Nada.

This should not be a complicated, contentious vote. Yet it could be. For reasons that defy defensibility. Our advice: Don’t vote angry; don’t vote retaliation.

Yes, the Manatee County School District totally botched the taxpayer-funded budget by millions — years ago. Years. That’s not the case today, not by a long shot. The district is now financially sound by Florida standards, meeting the state-mandated savings account percentage for two years in a row. Let’s focus on that. And the academic record, which is improving in test scores and graduation rates.

If there is a good argument about harming education and children by voting down the renewal of the existing half-cent sales tax for another 15 years, we’ve yet to hear that. The point about past financial transgressions doesn’t resonate today. It’s over. As a community, we’ve got to get past the past. It cannot be changed by a no vote in November. What can be changed is the future. Our children’s future. Our future.

Informing voters about one of this essential function of society — public schools and education — and convincing people that the development of knowledge in our youth cannot be accomplished without adequate resources should be an easy task. A no-brainer, so to speak. Manatee County School District Superintendent Diana Greene and others have embarked on that educational mission to promote passage of the referendum, by both the distribution of written materials and the more important task of speaking before influential community organizations.

The current sales tax has existed for 14 years, passed by voters who very much appreciated the value of education and children. That half-cent tax — which now contributes about $30 million annually to the district — expires at the end of 2017.

School board member Bob Gause put this in resident perspective in a Sunday article by Herald education report Meghin Delaney: Say a resident spends $500 a month on taxable goods and services, that person would be contributing $2.50 toward education. Two bucks and change. Over the course of a year, that totals $30, money that is currently paid out. Visitors and tourists who shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants are big donors to education here, too. That spigot should not be closed.

The return on that investment? As the saying goes, priceless.

Manatee County’s population is increasing again, big time. From the April 2010 census to the July 2015 estimate by the federal government, the population has surged by 12.6 percent with an additional 40,000 residents. The total surpasses 363,000 people today.

One imperative for the district is a new high school in the high-growth Parrish region. School building maintenance — including roofs, heating and air conditioning systems, even security cameras — has suffered from delays because by the lack of money. Impact fees on new residential and commercial construction cannot be spent on maintenance projects, as defined by state law.

Sales tax revenue is far more flexible than impact fee restrictions, which can only be spent on projects connected to growth. But those fees will not cover all the costs of a Parrish high school, and construction would be delayed for years as the districts saves up enough money to pay the estimated $70 million to $80 million for the building. The new school would help ease the pressure on Palmetto, Lakewood Ranch and Braden River high schools, all currently overcrowded with students.

As Greene told Delaney, if the current sales tax revenue were to end in 2017, “it would be a major crater in our capital funding. It definitely will be painful if we do not extend that surtax.”

As to public angst about past expenditures of sales tax revenue and the credibility of district leadership (twice changed since the years-old financial debacle), the district’s external auditor found the revenue from the entire life of the surtax accurately represented the projects outlined in the referendum. Plus, for the upcoming vote, the district pledges accountability and transparency with the independent audit company agreeing to a watchdog role over expenditures.

The Manatee County School District and its leadership deserve the confidence of the community — and a yes vote come November.

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