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Businesses called on to help schools

The district is asking business leaders to lobby for a sales tax boost to build schools.

By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


Seven years after a failed attempt at getting voters to raise Pasco County's sales tax, school officials have begun laying the groundwork for another referendum. Rampant enrollment growth, crowded classrooms and a string of similar referendums around the state have district leaders hopeful that voters will add at least an additional half-cent to the sales tax for new schools.

The district has made Ray Gadd the point man on the project. He's the head of the district's school psychologists, and one of his first efforts has been lining up local business leaders to talk up the sales tax campaign. Once they're on board, he hopes his work will take a back seat.

"I understand that there's got to be somebody out there running and hollering," Gadd said recently of his new duties. "But after I do that, I hope I can float to the background and let the business (leaders) run it."

Eight Florida districts have passed school construction tax increases in the past 16 months. All of the school districts used similar strategies, which included getting businesses on board.

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.

In Pasco, the existing sales tax is 6 cents on the dollar. The proposed increase, which isn't likely to go before voters until 2004, could go one of two ways: The district, county and local cities could go in together and share the proceeds from a 1-cent increase, or the school district could decide to try it 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, according to district estimates. That's enough to pay for a new elementary school each year.

Pasco business groups said recently they recognize that local schools are crowded. Jammed classrooms make it harder for the county to lure new businesses, harder for existing businesses to grow, and tougher for children to learn, they said. Whether the business community will support the proposed tax increase, though, remains to be seen.

"The more (community) services you have, the easier it is to market Pasco," said Mary Jane Stanley, head of the county's Economic Development Council.

If the proposed sales tax referendum will improve "quality of life stuff, we may support it," she said recently.

Other business representatives want to hear more details before they sign onto the sales campaign. Mainly, 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 Builders Association. "Schools (that aren't crowded) would certainly be seen as a benefit."

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 each year, Pasco planners say they need to build seven more schools by 2007, at a cost of $170-million, just to keep up with growth.

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

Local car dealer Tom Castriotta is one business owner who already has offered his support to the proposed referendum. He said if others join him, the proposal has a better chance of passing.

"If the business and Chamber (of Commerce) get behind it, we can be the public relations for the campaign," he said recently.

"If we all get behind it, that sends the message to residents that it's good for business."

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