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Schools craft game plan for tax

Facing rising school costs and reflecting on a failed attempt in 1995, officials take notes from eight districts that have recently passed a sales tax increase.

By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002

The last time the Pasco County School Board asked residents to tack 1 cent onto the local sales tax, the message from voters could not have been clearer: Hands off our pennies.

Seven years later, school officials are beginning to lay the groundwork for another sales tax referendum. Rampant enrollment growth, a receptive business community and a string of successful referendums around the state have them thinking that voters will be a little looser with their change this time around.

Eight Florida districts have passed school construction tax increases in the past 16 months. All of the districts used a similar strategy, and it is one that Pasco officials are likely to adopt for their referendum, which could hit the polls in 2004.

In a nutshell, here's how other districts have done it: First, they got local businesses on board. Second, they helped create grass roots organizations to lead the campaigns. Third, they told voters precisely how the money would be spent.

That strategy paid off in Orange County, where voters overwhelmingly approved a half-cent increase to the sales tax in September. Similar campaigns won approval in Volusia County, as well as in Manatee, Flagler and Leon counties.

Pasco looks to follow those districts after learning some valuable lessons in 1995, when the district-led referendum was defeated at the polls, losing 64 percent to 36 percent.

"We thought that we were being clever" in 1995, said Pasco school superintendent John Long. "We thought that by working our base (constituents) of employees and parents that we could win with a small turnout. Boy, did we get it handed to us."

Dick Batchelor co-chaired Change 4 Kids, the successful Orange County referendum. It takes a political campaign to raise the sales tax, he said. Therefore, districts need to hire pollsters, build support among key voting blocs and develop a clear message.

"It's a numbers game," Batchelor said, "and it only takes 50 percent (of the votes), plus one, to win."

Change 4 Kids did better than 50 percent plus one. It won 59 percent of the vote, and the tax is expected to bring in $2.7-billion over the next 15 years.

Proving the need

In Pasco, where the existing sales tax is 6 cents on the dollar, the proposal could go one of two ways: The district, county and local cities could share the proceeds from a 1-cent increase. Or, the school district could decide to go to alone and push for a half-cent increase. Either way, a successful referendum stands to bring the district between $11-million and $15-million a year for school construction. That's enough to pay for a new elementary school.

But first, the district will have to prove to voters that it needs the money.

Superintendent Long said he could make a strong case.

Since 1999, Pasco has built 10 schools, and it still houses about 7,000 students in more than 350 portable classrooms. State programs, meanwhile, have honored Pasco with rebates for building inexpensive schools.

But with district enrollments growing by more than 2,000 students a year, Pasco planners say that they need to build seven more schools by 2007 just to keep pace with growth. Estimated price tag: $170-million.

Trouble is, the district anticipates having only about $120-million for construction projects, even with bond sales, a new school impact fee and the refinancing of old debt.

"We've done everything we can do, and we're still going to have a deficit," Long said.

That's the message the district has to hammer away at, said consultants and school officials in other districts where voters have recently approved tax hikes.

"If it's a referendum on the School Board, you'll lose," said Orange County's Batchelor. "If it's a referendum on the future of kids, you'll win."

In May, 62 percent of Manatee voters supported a half-cent tax increase that is expected to generate $15-million a year for school construction.

"When you can truly show a need, people are willing to support it," said Larry Simmons, the vice chairman of the School Board in Manatee County. "But if they think you are wasting money, they won't."

Long said he had that angle covered. In 2000, Pasco's administrative cost of $331 per student was the second lowest in the state.

Business support

Pasco business groups said they recognized the frustration of parents who send their kids off to portables each day. They understand that crowded schools diminish Pasco's ability to market itself to new businesses.

But they are not convinced on the idea of a sales tax hike -- yet. Before they throw their weight behind such a campaign, they want to know -- precisely -- how the money would be spent.

"When you start looking at taxes that are passed for a specific purpose, you would be surprised what people's attitudes are," said Keith Appenzeller, president of the Pasco Builder's Association. "Schools (that aren't crowded) would certainly be seen as a benefit."

Early discussions have centered on the county and School Board joining forces on the proposed referendum. County Administrator John Gallagher is working on a "wish list" of capital projects that could be funded by the new money. He said he expected to have the list ready for the County Commission early next month.

Road improvements, parks, libraries, judicial buildings and jail additions are sure to make the list, he said.

But several consultants and officials in other counties said that superintendent Long should think a while before jumping in with the county.

They said that the district should first poll voters to determine whether adding county projects to the initiative will give it a better chance of passing.

Long has said that if the County Commission isn't unanimous in its support of the proposal, then the School Board will probably go it alone and seek a half-cent increase. So far, not every commissioner has publicly supported a full 1-cent increase.

"I'm having second thoughts about whether we need to go in with" the county, Long said.

That's the first decision Long must make, Batchelor said. Next, he'll need to decide who will be the face of the campaign.

In 1995, Long and then-superintendent Tom Weightman acted as the point-men for the proposal. Long said this week that decision was a mistake because it gave voters the impression that the district was "feathering its own nest."

Grass roots support

Other districts have taken a different tact. They've helped organize grass roots groups that pushed the initiative, keeping their school boards and superintendents in the background.

"(Voters) perceived that the businesses, home builders and parents were delivering the message, not the school system," said Simmons, the Manatee board member.

School officials in Volusia County did the same thing. Linda White, executive director of the West Volusia Chamber of Commerce, served on a committee of civic and business leaders put together by the superintendent. That group, not the School Board, pushed for the tax increase.

The district "really didn't want the School Board pushing for it," she said. "They wanted community leaders doing it."

Long said such "stealth campaigns" go against "everything I believe in." But, he added, it's hard to argue with the success other districts have had recently.

White said Long didn't have to be sneaky. The Volusia committee included people on both sides of the issue, she said. Nor was it a "rubber stamp" for the district.

"We had frank, candid discussions with the superintendent and School Board," she said. "And they included people on the committee who opposed it."

Either way, Long said, the proposed sales tax increase is going to be a long, tough process.

"I know this will occupy the next 12 to 13 months of my life, that's for sure."

School tax votes

In the past 16 months, eight school districts have asked voters to tax themselves to help build new schools. All the referendums won by comfortable margins.

District Date marginTax

EscambiaSept. 200262%half-cent*

FlaglerSept. 200269%half-cent

LakeNov. 200163%1 cent*

LeonNov. 200257%half-cent

ManateeMay 200262%half-cent

OrangeSept. 200259%half-cent

SeminoleSept. 200172%1 cent*

VolusiaSept. 200158%half-cent

-- Denotes vote to continue previously approved tax increase.

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