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School officials agree: no tax

New schools are needed, but superintendent Wendy Tellone says it should be 2004 before asking voters to approve another sales tax.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002


Unlike her predecessor, schools superintendent Wendy Tellone is in no hurry to go back to Hernando County voters with a new sales tax request.

John Sanders was eager to hold a vote in the fall that would ask voters for a new half-cent sales tax like the one they approved in 1998.

That tax, which expires Dec. 31, 2003, is paying for a new high school being built on California Street that is due to open in August 2003.

Tellone says it would be a mistake to go back to voters before the high school is built and -- equally important -- before the first tax has expired.

That's a similar position to the one staked out by several School Board members since Sanders first floated the idea of a 2002 tax vote. Most were sensitive to skepticism some voters expressed during the 1998 campaign that once the tax was enacted, it would never go away.

Tellone says she wants to wait until 2004 -- two years later than Sanders -- before asking voters for a new sales tax. By then, Nature Coast Technical High School will be open, and the sales tax will be gone. "I feel we have to do that first," Tellone said.

Tellone, who took over when Sanders resigned in September to become superintendent in Lee County, agrees with board members that a sales tax -- as opposed to borrowed money -- is the best way to pay for new schools.

But several aspects of a 2004 vote remain up in the air.

Should the next sales tax be for a half-cent, as in 1998, or a full penny?

Should the next tax have a life span of five years, as in 1998, or just three?

And how many schools should be built with the new tax money?

Most school officials are convinced that Hernando's next school needs to be an elementary somewhere on the west side of the county. There has also been discussion about a new school on the county's east side that would serve children from kindergarten through eighth grade.

And officials say it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a third school might be needed before the decade is out. One idea is that the K-8 school could later be converted to an elementary school and that a pure middle school would be built on the county's east side.

Sanders figured the growth that Hernando County is experiencing would make it necessary to build new schools sooner, rather than later. And he was cognizant of state laws that require school districts to have money in hand before construction projects can begin.

But School Board member Jim Malcolm said it would be foolhardy to ask voters to support a new tax before they could see the new high school open and the first tax expired. "If we do anything short of that, I think that that tax referenda in this county would be dead for a long time," he said.

Facilities director Graydon Howe has been searching for potential school sites on both ends of the county. He expects to bring the School Board a land purchase request -- for one of three properties along U.S. 19 -- by early May.

Exactly how the future tax proposal is worded promises to be a subject of considerable debate. In 1998, the ballot question was very specific -- the sales tax would finance "a new vocational technical high school."

Malcolm and others believe that the extreme clarity of that question -- that the money could not go anywhere but one particular school -- made the idea of the new tax more palatable and ultimately led to its passage.

While that may be the case, the specific wording has posed a happy problem in light of the fact that the sales tax is on pace to generate $5-million more than earlier expected.

With other state revenue sources that must also go specifically to the new high school, the School Board now expects to have at least $41.3-million to spend on the school. Yet, at present, they can build it for less.

That has caused concern among some board members and criticism from some taxpayers that the new school is being expanded just because its budget is ample.

Last month, in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Tellone said that a more vaguely worded ballot question in 2004 could allow money to go to "new schools, period."

Now, she says that may be too general. She, like Malcolm, is thinking that the question should specifically identify the two or three school projects the money would pay for.

And specifics are important to Tellone.

She said she believes school leaders haven't always communicated their intentions well. A case in point is the cost of the new high school.

Until last month, Tellone, who oversaw elementary education in 1998, was unaware that $33.8-million was the cost figure originally associated with the new high school.

A document she presented to the Times explaining the growth of the school's price started with a $39-million figure that was born in March 2000, when the first design of the school was presented.

Because of that, she was concerned over the fuss made in January when board members were told the project now costs $40.8-million.

Carol MacLeod, who is in just her second year as finance director, was also unaware of the original $33.8-million cost number. MacLeod even questioned how such a hard number could have been arrived at two years before any designs were drawn up.

In the future, Tellone said, school officials need to specifically spell out the fact that early cost estimates are just that: estimates.

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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