The Okaloosa County School District has been asked to consider reviving the idea of seeking approval for a half-cent sales tax to provide dollars for needed infrastructure upgrades and added school security.
The issue will be discussed at today’s 9 a.m. workshop and possibly again at Monday’s 6 p.m. School Board meeting, according to board member Dewey Destin.
At a recent workshop, Tim Bryant, another board member, urged his fellow members to revisit the sales tax proposal and allow Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson to explore the possibility of seeking voter support for it in November.
“I believe we owe it to the future of our School Sistrict,” Bryant said. “We cannot keep putting Band-Aids on problems that need to be addressed now.”
With school buildings purported to be among the state’s oldest and an aging fleet of school buses, the district needs to do what other public school systems around the state had done and impose the sales tax, Bryant said.
The School District needs to be proactive at a time when funding for public education is declining each year and “districts are required to do more with less,” Bryant said.
“The general public needs to know that whatever issues the district is facing at this time, we cannot ignore the fact that our aging infrastructure is not going away,” he said.
The issues to which Bryant referred are substantial.
Four present and former school district employees, including the former assistant superintendent for human resources, are facing felony charges and the State Attorney’s Office continues to investigate Jackson herself.
Additionally, the district just settled one lawsuit and faces at least two others. Its former director of communications was recently fined $500 for a Sunshine Law violation.
It was unfolding scandal within the School District that led the School Board on Nov. 13, 2017 to vote unanimously to postpone a referendum on the sales tax issue. A political action committee responsible for raising money for the mail-in ballots, headed by local attorney Michelle Anchors, requested that postponement.
“I’ve tried to look at the community’s focus right now, which is not on infrastructure needs but elsewhere on some issues that rightly need to be addressed,” Anchors told the School Board in November. “Just like we don’t swim in the Gulf when there are double red flags, I shouldn’t ask people for a tax when we have double red flags.”
The Florida Legislature has further complicated any effort the school district might make to get the half-cent sales tax referendum on the ballot.
This year lawmakers passed a bill that requires counties or school districts seeking tax hikes to have the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, OPPAGA, conduct a performance audit.
The audit must be completed 60 days prior to a referendum being held, or by Sept. 6, Henry Kelley, the school district’s director of community affairs, told the School Board at the workshop.
If the School District can clear existing hurtles and the School Board votes to hold the Nov. 6 sales tax referendum, the Okaloosa County Commission would be asked for its consent to put the item on the ballot, according to County Commission Chairman Graham Fountain.
A School District sales tax referendum would appear on the same ballot the County Commission’s identical request for a half-cent sales tax hike will appear. The $17 million county officials hope to raise would also be used to address infrastructure needs.
Because the county and school district are not acting together to request voters support for an additional penny in sales tax revenue, the school district, by state law, will be limited to spending anything raised from the tax on capital items, according to School Board Attorney Jeff McInnis.
“The sales tax cannot be used for operational expenses, but can be used for capital expenditures,” he said.
Neither Jackson nor Bryant responded to requests for comment for this article.