Whether you support a proposed half-cent sales tax or oppose it, one thing is certain: aging and faulty infrastructure of Okaloosa County schools in dire need of improvement.
DESTIN — Building two wings on Destin Middle School to provide the city with its first high school could cost at least $7 million or $8 million, said longtime Okaloosa County School Board member Rodney Walker.
But even if voters approve a proposed half-cent sales tax to provide money for the project, other daunting challenges must be considered, according to Walker, who has served on the board since 1994.
For years, some Destin residents and officials have included community pride and a growing population among the reasons why “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” should have its own high school. But people with opposing views have cited various concerns, such as it not being able to offer the academic and athletic programs of established Okaloosa County schools.
Both sides, however, seem to agree that the aging and faulty infrastructure of schools throughout the district are in dire need of improvement. And they could find something else in common next spring, when they might be asked to help decide the fate of the latest proposed sales tax measure.
During much of his time on the School Board, Walker has served as its representative in overseeing the design, construction and completion of about $90 million in physical improvements to 36 schools.
“I’d love to see Destin have a high school, but there are so many problems in this day and time,” Walker said. “The biggest thing we’re going to be facing, even with building a facility, is funding it year after year.
"If the sales tax gets approved, that’s all fine and good, but even after building the facility, we can’t use sales tax money to help fund and offer all the high-end courses that these types of kids will want to have."
Officials with the school district and Destin Area Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 11 announced their proposal for a referendum by mail ballot for the half-cent sales tax, which would pay for infrastructure upgrades at existing schools and construction of Destin’s first high school.
Pending local officials’ final approval, countywide voters might be asked to vote on the proposed tax in a May 15, 2018 special election.
If voters approve the tax, district and chamber officials said improvements to various schools could start in 2019. They also want to open a high school within the next three years in Destin, which has more than 13,600 residents.
Chamber President Shane Moody said the School Board on Aug. 28 plans to discuss various aspects of the proposed sales tax measure, including whether the tax sunsets in five or 10 years. The possible tax could generate $15 million the first year, he said.
“It would be at the complete purview of the School Board on how it would be spent and where it would be spent,” Moody said. “All of the money would go into physical improvements at all the schools, not for administration or the administration building.”
If the proposed high school becomes a reality, fifth-graders would go back to Destin Elementary and the overall facility housing Destin Middle School and the high school would hold grades 6 through 12.
Florida’s sales tax is 6 percent. Neither the school district nor the county currently charges a local sales tax.
In 2010, the School Board asked voters to approve a half-cent sales tax that would have been assessed for 10 years and benefited local schools’ infrastructure. Voters rejected it.
Back in 1995, more than 12,173 voters voted “yes” and 6,246 voters voted “no” on a 1-cent sales tax to fund school construction projects. Walker said that tax generated about $140 million.
Much of that revenue paid to build Destin Middle School and Davidson Middle School and Antioch Elementary School in Crestview, he said. The tax provided “something for every school in the district, and we got rid of every portable (classroom) we had," Walker said.
The district now has about 160 portables. But they do not provide the proper learning environment for students, said Moody, who also noted that the average age of school buildings in the county is 50 years old.
“It’s time to make those improvements” with the possible sales tax money, Moody said. “If the education deteriorates, the community and the economy as a whole deteriorate.”
Walker said the school district has always had school funding problems.
“There’s nothing wrong with 50-year-old buildings if you keep maintaining them,” he said. “But if there is no money to keep them in shape, then that’s when they become a problem.”
If the sales tax proposal gets approved, Walker said the best way to spend the tax revenue would be to “string projects out” as the money comes in each quarter.
“We would plan the construction program in such a way that you take the projects most needed, like fixing a school’s leaking roof or adding additional classrooms at Bluewater Elementary, which has 10 portables,” he said.
Also, the School Board could either borrow money to pay for a new high school or build it in phases, thereby avoiding having to pay interest on borrowed funds, Walker said.
He also said that while the Destin Middle School site has room for two new wings, the property might not have enough parking space to handle the growth.
“If you look at the site, you have about 12 to 14 acres,” Walker said. “If you have 300 high schoolers who drive cars, where are they going to park?”
Destin City Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell, a strong supporter of a high school in Destin, said the School Board could consider going vertical by building a parking garage at the middle school.
Ramswell said the area’s growing population bodes well when it comes to having enough students for a high school in Destin. She said more than half of the high schools in Florida have fewer than 500 students and that Okaloosa County School District had 614 high school-aged students with a Destin address during the 2015-16 school year.
She was elected to the council in 2014 and received its support in 2016 to form an advisory committee to look at the feasibility and viability of building a high school in Destin. The 10-member committee has met semi-monthly since it began.
The group’s research has found that the school district’s total number of third-grade students increased by 34 percent between 2013 and 2016, and that the county projects its population will increase by 30,000 people by 2045.
“On top of that, our students (who go to Fort Walton Beach High School or Niceville High School) have to cross a minimum of two bridges to go to school,” Ramswell said. “And logistically, it makes sense to have our own school. Both our middle school and elementary school are over-capacity. We’ve had students in trailers for over 20 years. Those portables are designed to be temporary, not permanent.”
Many of the students who would attend the potential high school would be those who are advancing through Destin Middle School, which currently has 734 students, she said.
“Everything points to the fact that we have enough students for a new school,” Ramswell said.
Moody said he thinks the students who are enrolled at Fort Walton Beach and Niceville high schools when the proposed high school in Destin opens would most likely stay at those schools.
"But after the first couple of years, I think you will see (students advancing to the high school level) go to Destin," he said. "The high school age is one where you just don’t want to leave your friends.”
Walker also sees some benefits of Destin having its own high school.
“All those kids born and raised there, they have the name ‘Destin’ ” in their roots, he said. “And it’s not a big drive to go to Fort Walton Beach or Niceville, but so many of the kids would be just a mile or two” from the possible new school.
“Being able to say, ‘I’m going to my own high school in Destin,’ I can understand that," Walker added. "I think there’ll be some way they’ll be able to do that. But it’s going to be difficult.”
Because of Destin's location, Ramswell and other advisory committee members see the possible high school as the opportune place to offer a curriculum in the environmental/marine sciences. Some of the BP settlement money administered by the Triumph Gulf Coast board could be a funding source for such programs, she said.
Athletically, the school could start out with golf, tennis and swimming programs, Ramswell said.
“We could even offer baseball and track and field and soccer, and we want to offer football, but it’s going to depend on how quickly the (student) numbers grow,” she said.
Walker said because current school zoning rules allow many students to “virtually go anywhere at anytime,” numerous students from Destin might choose to go to larger schools to participate in bigger, established athletic programs.
But Ramswell said Destin has the talent and "significant private donations" to launch educational and athletic programs.
Still, Walker has concerns about available space at Destin Middle School.
“In Destin, it’s a shame (the School Board) didn’t set aside land, such as a 30- or 40-acre site” for a high school, he said. “But we didn’t have the foresight to do it.”
'Hot-button political issue'
Destin resident Kristen Goodman, whose eighth-grade son attends Destin Middle School, said she supports the half-cent sales tax initiative.
“Our schools are aging,” she said. “If you ever walked into Destin Elementary School, it’s pathetic. They’re in a lot of portables.”
But she said Destin isn’t big enough to have its own high school, and that her son will attend Fort Walton Beach High School.
“I do think we’ll need a high school eventually, but not now,” Goodman said. “Fort Walton Beach High School is six or seven miles from my house. It’s not far.”
Goodman said she is also concerned that students at al high school in Destin would suffer academically and athletically, at least in its early years.
“I think we need to focus on the needs of our existing schools,” she said.
John Spolski, who is going on his fourth year as principal of Fort Walton Beach High, said he supports the proposed sales tax referendum because all local schools need financial support.
“There are long lists of needs for our primary and secondary schools,” he said. “And I think our School Board is looking at the needs of these high-growth areas” such as Destin and the north county area.
He said Fort Walton Beach has 1,743 students. About 350 arre from Destin.
The opening of a high school in Destin “would have an impact” on Fort Walton Beach, “but there are a lot of roads to cross before we really need to worry about that,” Spolski said.
He said his school does not have any portable classrooms.
“We’re very fortunate,” Spolski said. “Decades ago, the high schools in the south end had enrollments in the 1,900s and 2,000s. Now, we’re under that mark. We’ve been growing during the time I’ve been here, but we’re doing fine in terms of room and are not at overcapacity.”
He said his school is in its final phase of a major HVAC renovation that began years ago.
“When I started here, there were space heaters in the rooms,” Spolski said. “Many of the schools (throughout the district) were built in the '60s and constantly need work. I think the School Board is just trying to make sure the basic needs are met across the district.”
Charlie Marello, who is in his second year as principal of Niceville High, agreed.
“Anyone in the Okaloosa County School District, I believe, would support the half-cent sales tax,” he said. “Our facilities are falling behind."
Niceville has 2,114 students, with 148 are from Destin. The school also doesn’t have any portables.
Marello served as principal of Destin Middle School from January 2013 to May 2016.
“When I left, the school was getting cramped and we were adding portables,” he said.
Marello said the possible high school in Destin is a “hot-button political issue” and he preferred not to comment further.
Voters would have final say
The sales tax referendum would require approval from a simple majority, or 50 percent plus one, of the voters who cast ballots. Moody said mail ballots were chosen for the potential special election because they would reach every registered voter.
“It will be in the hand of the voter to return the ballot, rather than relying on every voter to go to the polls,” he said.
Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux said the cost of the ballots and their mailing/postage price tag could total $140,000 to $160,000.
“We’ll have to rely on the business community to pay for that so we can get this done,” Moody said. “We will reach out to them and ask them to contribute. There has been a lot of talk of a high school by the residents and the businesses in the community. I think you’ll see them rally and generate a good amount of money for the mail-in effort.”
Lux said the 2010 sales tax issue that voters rejected was part of that year’s primary election. The 1995 sales tax vote that passed by an almost 2-1 margin took place in a special, precinct-based election.
Special elections in general usually see a voter turnout of about 20 percent and primary elections have an average turnout of about 18-25 percent, Lux said.
“The potential exists for a greater turnout with mail-in ballots,” although there is no significant local data to support that possibility, Lux said.
If the May 15 date is finalized for the sales tax referendum, ballots would be mailed to voters a month ahead of time. Absentee and overseas ballots also would be sent out early.
The cheapest way to carry out a referendum, however, is to make it part of a scheduled countywide election, Lux said. In that scenario, the cost of putting the sales tax question on the ballot would be roughly $3,000 to $5,000, which would pay for legal advertising.
But the next primary election isn’t until August 2018, and the next General Election isn’t until November 2018.
Lux said past attempts to get School Board issues on the ballot required the County Commission’s approval.
“There has always been a tacit understanding that if (School Board members) want a question on the ballot, they bring it to the County Commission to put it on the ballot,” he said.
The Okaloosa County League of Cities is spearheading a separate proposal for a five-year, half-cent sales tax referendum. Money from that tax would pay for infrastructure projects in the county and its municipalities.
The League hopes to get the County Commission’s approval to put a referendum on the tax before countywide voters sometime in 2018. If approved, the distribution of tax revenue to the county and its municipalities would be based on population.
County Administrator John Hofstad said he plans to ask the commission at its Sept. 5 meeting for direction regarding the League’s sales tax initiative and the preferred election date for the referendum. He said money could be saved by putting that referendum and the school district’s possible sales tax referendum on the same ballot.
The county and School Board could split the roughly $140,000 to $160,000 cost of the special election if the two referendums go on the same mail ballot next spring, Lux said.