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Act now, fund future schools

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By JEFF WEBB, Hernando Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003

Hernando County's next public school almost certainly will be built on 38 acres on Elgin Boulevard, just west of Barclay Avenue in Spring Hill. The students there will range from kindergarten to eighth grade. Construction should be complete by 2005.

That covers the School Board's questions of who, what, when and where.

All that remains is how -- as in how to pay for the school -- and answering that question may take longer than any of the others.

The low-end estimate for the school's construction is about $15-million, plus a little more than $1-million for the property, which is owned by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. It is in an area that is expected to see heavy growth during the next 20 years because of its proximity to the Suncoast Parkway, as well as existing and planned residential developments.

In a few weeks the School Board should begin discussions about placing a referendum on the 2004 general election ballot that would revive the half-cent sales tax, which will expire at the end of this year. The revenue collected from that tax for the past four years was used to pay for Nature Coast Technical High School, which will open its doors to students this fall.

At a minimum, the School Board is counting on voters to reauthorize the half-cent sales tax to pay for construction of the K-8 school on Elgin, and perhaps additional elementary schools in Spring Hill and Ridge Manor.

But what the board would really like is for residents to approve a referendum that would not to be voted on again for 10, or maybe even 20, years. Beyond that the board would like the referendum to designate the tax be spent on general school construction, instead of specifying a school, as was the case with Nature Coast Technical.

And that's where the board's more difficult decision -- and sales job -- lies.

The sales tax currently generates about $15-million a year. That number will rise along with spending in the county. That means the School Board could pay for the K-8 school in the first year of the new tax cycle, and begin to accumulate a sizable pool of money for future construction.

The need for more schools will grow. That was the case even before voters approved a constitutional amendment in November that requires school districts to limit the number of students in classes. Given the certainty of that need, it is wise for the board to be looking for ways to buy the bricks and mortar.

Hernando County voters have been supportive historically of funding education-related issues. During a period of phenomenal growth in the 1980s and early 1990s, they approved going deep into debt to build enough schools to keep pace with the surge in student population. They're still paying those bills.

If voters were to reject a new referendum for construction, the board would be forced to borrow again. Because the state requires districts to provide adequate facilities for students, the board really has no choice.

So, the School Board's path is clear; convince voters of the need to pay for schools up front, and in fractions, instead of borrowing first and paying over time. Barring unforeseen circumstances, chances are voters will be just as accommodating as they have been in the past of a straightforward referendum to build one or two schools. They've seen it work before and probably will trust it will again.

However, persuading voters to agree to a less-specific referendum, and to extend its timeline well beyond the terms of all the representatives they hold accountable for how their money is spent, is a much greater challenge.

The board members cannot afford to dither on this issue. As soon as they approve the purchase of the land on Elgin, they need to begin discussions in earnest about the next sales tax referendum. Voters deserve to know as soon as possible what will be expected of them in 2004.

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