Destin high school could be referendum promise

Tom McLaughlin
The Okaloosa County School Board could make expanding Destin Middle School to accomodate high school students one of the requirements of the proposed sales tax under consideration. [MADDIE ROWLEY/THE LOG]

The idea of dangling a Destin high school as a bauble to attract votes in favor of a half-cent sales tax for the Okaloosa County School District was discussed briefly Thursday at a School Board workshop.

At least one board member, Melissa Thrush, said she had no plans to vote in favor of a sales tax that promised dedicated funding to a particular sector of the voting population.

“I will publicly say right now, unfortunately, I cannot vote to say we’re going to have a half-cent sales tax and, by the way, we’re going to build a secondary school,” she said.

Thursday’s discussion was prompted by a call earlier in the month for the School Board to reconsider seeking a November referendum asking voters to approve the sales tax hike to fund desperately need capital projects within the school district. A vote on whether to try to get the referendum on the general election ballot could come Monday.

Plans hatched late last year to seek the sales tax increase were tabled as scandal within the school district dulled community support for its leadership.

After Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson provided poll numbers indicating Destin voters viewed a sales tax to benefit the school district favorably, Board Chairman Lamar White commented that city residents could have a significant favorable impact on the outcome of the sales tax vote.

White asked Jackson if plans to renovate the existing Destin Middle School to accommodate grades six through 12 was contained within the plan for district improvements to take place if a sales tax referendum is passed.

“Yes, it would fall in line with our plan,” Jackson said.

The superintendent went on to say her staff has been “in direct contact with some folks there in the (Destin) chamber and they are ready to move” in support of selling the sales tax.

“That’s folks in that organization,” she said.

Thrush said she wanted to see data showing that Destin’s high school age population supported a need to create a secondary education facility there. She said she also had questions about the location of the middle school and increasing the number of students there.

White asked Jackson to clarify her comments about the Destin secondary school and the proposed November referendum.

“I want to ascertain if the modification to the facility, to create an entity we might refer to as Destin High School, that the proposal we’re going to vote on includes that,” he said.

“Yes,” Jackson answered.

Thrush noted the last referendum, the proposal that was later postponed, offered no incentives. She said a Destin secondary school should be given no less or more weight than any other priority when sales tax funding needs are charted

“The resolution that passed previously (November 2017) had nothing in the attachment or the body of the resolution that promised anything to anyone,” she said.

Shane Moody, the president of the Destin Chamber of Commerce, confirmed Jackson’s statement that his organization stands behind a sales tax referendum. He said his members are eager to support a push for providing the school district needed funding and the support is not contingent on having a secondary school opened in the city.

“It’s really about education for the entire county,” Moody said. “When education deteriorates the community deteriorates.”

Moody said Destin Elementary School has needs, as does Niceville High School and nearly every other educational facility in the county. Okaloosa County provides first class education to its students and “we need to do anything we can to maintain that,” he said.

Not even the ongoing turmoil within the district’s administration will deter Destin Chamber of Commerce support, Moody said.

“Just because it’s hanging over their heads shouldn’t prohibit us from having great facilities for our kids to go to school,” he said.