This election day, voters in Lee County are deciding whether to approve a proposed half-cent sales tax increase in order to help the school district keep up with an ever-growing student population. The proposed sales tax increase is estimated to generate about $59 million a year for 10 years beginning in 2019.
“It would cost the average taxpayer in Lee County $64 per year, which is less than 18 cents per day,” said Lee County School Board member Chris Patricca. “One third of the cost of this tax will be borne by people who are just passing through Lee County.”
About $268 million would go toward new construction, about $59 million would go toward safety and security needs and about $57 million would be allocated for upgrading technology. Patricca said the biggest chunk, about 365 million, would be put toward facility maintenance.
“It is very basic infrastructure and it’s not due to lack of attention by our maintenance department or our current administration, said Patricca.
“Funding for capital has been cut to the tune of $200 million per year for the past ten years. That forced us off of a preventative maintenance schedule. So, now we’re having to respond to things as they break instead of being able to keep up on the maintenance.”
Critics of the referendum say county residents are already overtaxed and the school district should do more with its current budget. They point to the 27 parcels of vacant land that the school district currently owns totaling 881 acres as a possible way generate revenue. Lee School District Superintendent Greg Adkins said the district is currently working with a broker to try and sell up to nine of those district owned parcels, but that trying to sell them all now would not be a solution.
“If we did that right now using today’s property appraised value, it really wouldn’t be enough to even pay for a full high school,” said Adkins.
“So you’re not talking about enormous dollars here. If we do that, then we find ourselves in the same predicament that we were in years ago with no land inventory whatsoever, and now we’re forced to pay the higher rate as property values go up...If we sold off all of our property, it would not fund a high school and then you’d have to go right back out and buy it at an inflated value.”
Advocates say education funding is not keeping up with population growth, which increases by 1,500 to 2,000 students each year, and that the district already doesn’t have enough capital to properly maintain existing infrastructure, let alone make improvements and upgrades.
If approved, the ballot referendum would also create an independent citizens committee to provide outside oversight over how the school district spends money. That committee would report directly to the citizenry of Lee County and not to administration officials.
Superintendent Greg Adkins says if the referendum doesn’t pass, more students will be learning in portable classrooms and that the district will have to go deeper into debt. “Whether we like it or not, the kids are coming,” said Adkins.
“We’re going to have to provide schools for growth and that’s going to mean that we’re going to have to build these schools, but the more debt that this district takes on, the less money we have to maintain our schools. So, at some point, this community is going to have to pay. I think it makes more sense to pay up front for this capital infrastructure and not take on more debt.”