Building new schools or maintaining existing schools should not be an either-or proposition
In 2002, Florida voters approved what sounded like a great thing for children.
Reducing class sizes to prescribed caps, advocates said, would increase student achievement and create more manageable classrooms for teachers. By many measures, the class size amendment has been a resounding success as Florida climbed in academic rankings and school classrooms were no longer packed wall-to-wall with students.
However, the class size reduction initiative created a financial problem – Florida school districts didn’t have the cash on-hand to build thousands of new classrooms.
Through the 2007-08 school year, the Florida Legislature covered operating and facilities costs to keep school districts in line with the class size amendment. Then in 2008, facilities funding stopped, and it has remained at zero for the past decade. That amounts to billions of dollars that school districts have paid from their own pockets to be compliant with a state law.
Unfortunately, Lee County’s pockets are empty. According to the school district’s tentative budget, Lee is heading into the 2018-19 school year with $412 million in outstanding debt. Borrowing money to build new schools helped Lee comply with class size requirements, but now the district is bogged down with debt. Lee’s problem is much more severe than other counties because of the district’s steady enrollment growth, about 2 percent annually for the past decade. The district forecasts enrollment this fall to eclipse 94,000 students.
District leadership will continue finding ways to build new schools, and the new Bonita Springs High School is a shining example of that commitment to a strong educational environment for students. But there is only so much money to go around, and if the district is devoting its limited capital dollars toward new school construction, that’s leaving less money for renovations, routine maintenance, school security and technology.
The proposal to increase the sales tax from 6 percent to 6.5 percent would ensure it’s not an either-or proposition. Lee County could build new schools AND maintain the facilities it currently has. Vehicle owners recognize that regularly scheduled maintenance like changing oil, replacing air filters and checking fluids will help extend the life of a car. The same holds true for a school building, and even your house. Regular maintenance is critical in maximizing a facility’s use and preventing roof leaks, equipment breakdowns and malfunctions to air conditioning systems. The extra sales tax also would provide funding for technology upgrades, furniture replacement and security features, including new camera systems, lockdown panels and hardened doors that are critically important in ensuring school safety.
I encourage all voters to educate themselves about the proposed sales tax increase by visiting leeschools.net/change-for-change. We are on the path to providing a high-quality education system for the children and taxpayers or Lee County, and we need facilities to match.
Bill Tubb is principal at Tubb & Associates in Cape Coral, and previously served as executive director of financial services for the School District of Lee County.