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Escambia School Superintendent Urges Sales Tax Renewal

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Escambia School District
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Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas is asking voters to extend the half-cent sales tax, in order to fund construction of three new public schools next year.

The levy – which expires in 2018 – raises about $20 million per year. It’s on the ballot this November for another ten-years after that. The half-cent tax has been the main funding source for the school district’s capital outlay since 1997. Thomas says voter approval is vital to their plan covering the next 10-15 years.

“You can’t accomplish anything if you don’t know where you’re going, so this is part of ‘big picture’ vision,” said Thomas. “I know there are a lot of minute details that we’ll still have to work through. But I think it’s important when we ask the voters to go, and accept and vote for a new tax, they need to know what we’re going to try to accomplish with that money.”

The planned construction carries a $100 million price tag. If the tax is extended, it won’t cost taxpayers any more than what they’ve already paid over the past 17 years.

Thomas’ blueprint calls for side-by-side elementary and middle schools in the Navy Federal growth corridor on Nine Mile Road; another elementary school in west Escambia County, and getting rid of a number of portable classrooms. The linchpin, he says, is building the middle school first; and then a lot of other dominoes would begin to fall.

“Brown Barge goes to the West Florida facility, George Stone now increases their capacity, they have more space,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to attract manufacturing and aerospace. To rebuild a jet engine, that takes big space. That cannot be a traditional-sized classroom. So buy moving West Florida to the Woodham campus, it’s going to give about two-thirds of the space back to George Stone for that kind of advancement.”

The new elementary school would take some of the pressure off of Pine Meadow and Beulah Elementary, along with Ransom Middle School. What’s left of the student body at Woodham would be rezoned.

About half of the money to build the three new schools is already locked in from the current sales tax. Thomas wants to use the remainder for a bond issue.

If all goes as planned, the new schools could open in time for the 2016-17 school year. But if voters reject an extension of the half-cent sales tax, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas says that would mean “desperate straits” for the school district.

Since the beginning of the sales tax, more than 350 school improvement projects totaling $300 million have been finished or are on the drawing board. Those include the new Blue Angel and AK Suter Elementary Schools; and the new Ernest Ward Middle School.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.