Articulate January 2018

Supporting Public Schools Is Good Business


Written By: Brian Scarborough

In November 2018, Alachua County voters will have the opportunity to approve a one-half cent sales tax that will fund facilities improvements within our local public schools. Having spent a good portion of 2017 serving as Chair of the Chamber of Commerce’s Putting Children First Infrastructure Investment Initiative (i3), I’m happy to report that the Chamber has publicly endorsed the tax as the clearest path to rebuild our schools. The purpose of this article is to share with you why the need in our schools is real and explain why this is an issue that is important not only to our community’s children, but to all of our businesses as well.    

Our local public schools comprise about five million square feet of interior space with the average building being 34 years old. We have roughly 6,000 students studying in over 300 “portables” because we do not have the permanent facilities to house them. In the last three years, enrollment in our public schools is up about 1,700 students. The school board of Alachua County, like all public school districts, relies heavily on state funding. Unfortunately, over the last decade the political winds in Tallahassee have been blowing against public schools. The evidence is plain: 

  • State funding is down $418 on a per pupil basis from 10 years ago 
  • After roughly 70 years of precedence, the legislature reduced the property tax millage for schools by 25%, from 2 million to 1.5 million in 2008 
  • From 2011-2014, state funding for public school facilities was completely cut 
  • In 2015, the state began allowing for facilities funding again, but deemed that it had to be split evenly with charter schools, many of which operate on a for-profit basis. In Florida, there are approximately 650 charter schools compared to 3,600 public schools, yet funds are divided evenly per the legislature 
  • On a cumulative basis, state funding for public school facilities in Alachua County has dropped by $167 million from 2006-2016 
  • Due to lack of funding, our School Board has had to issue bonds for urgent state needs, for which they are presently paying $6.7 million in debt service annually 

 I know there is great skepticism about how efficiently our government manages our tax dollars. In the case of public school facilities funding, however, I would challenge even the most ardent low tax, small government advocate to rationalize how our local schools are supposed to meet their infrastructure needs given such severe cuts. The Chamber’s i3 process included a public meeting with local school officials where they announced that we presently have a backlog of close to $19 million solely in the areas of Roof Resurfacing, Painting, HVAC Replacement and Flooring Replacement.  

In the coming year, there will be an additional $6.5 million in needed repairs in these areas and not nearly enough money to complete that work, thereby driving the backlog higher. Obviously, those figures do not include needs such as new schools, renovations for cafeterias and bathrooms, additional technology needs, athletic facility upgrades, or building additional permanent classrooms to replace inefficient and less secure portables.  

Having toured Idylwild Elementary, Santa Fe High School and Eastside High School as a part of i3, I’ve personally seen the sand bags that are kept at the ready in Idylwild’s kindergarten wing to deal with flooding during heavy rains. We also toured their undersized cafeteria and kitchen space that serves more meals than any other school in our district. We saw Santa Fe’s cramped band room and toured the auditorium which has, to put it kindly, “sporadic” air conditioning service as well as another tiny cafeteria.  

We also toured a science classroom at Eastside with no air conditioning, an emergency eyewash station that hadn’t worked in years, and insufficient lab space given the number of students at the school. As a parent with kids at J.J. Finley Elementary and Westwood Middle, I know there are significant infrastructure needs across the school district and, barring a policy reversal in Tallahassee, there is no way for the school board to creatively budget their way out of the spiraling problem.  

The students at these schools are our future employees, nurses, teachers and first responders. The schools where we send them to learn to prepare for their lives as productive citizens are a reflection of our community’s values. We must do better.

But aside from the moral argument, there is a business argument to be made. We cannot hope to attract top level talent or lure companies to our community if we cannot show them a top tier public school system. Supporting this tax is therefore sound economic development policy. Additionally, all of our businesses remain thirsty for talent.  

Expecting your future all-star employee to come from schools lacking basic needs like air conditioning and reliable roofs is unrealistic. Funding these needs via a sales tax is wise fiscal policy as well. An estimated 30 percent of the projected annual revenue of $19 million generated by a one-half cent tax will come from visitors to our community as they shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants.  

Further, while we presently have a sales tax of 6.5 cents, all of the surrounding counties are already charging 7 cents including Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Levy, Marion, Putnam and Union. This would put us on even footing with our neighbors while improving our ability to compete for companies and talent looking to relocate to North Central Florida. 

November is a long way away, so you can rest easy that you will hear plenty about the needs in our schools and how you can play an active role in helping our students and teachers. I’m hopeful you’ll reach the same conclusion that I have and that you will support improving the future of our children and community.

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BRIAN SCARBOROUGH is the area executive vice president for Scarborough Insurance/HUB International and specializes in commercial insurance and employee benefits.

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