Okaloosa voters on Election Day will decide on a half-cent sales tax that could boost School District revenue for the next 10 years.
With an estimated forecast of $256 million, the half-cent tax would provide needed revenue for long-overdue projects throughout the district. Newly elected Superintendent Marcus Chambers said his top priorities include safety initiatives, new AC units, and roofs.
“Number one, is our safety initiative,” said Chambers. “We’ve started the process of single point of entry and perimeter fencing in approximately 12 to 13 schools right now. What we know is, without this half-cent initiative, it will take another two, maybe three years to finish that initiative based on funding. Also, looking at two other items would be air conditioning … and also roofs. We’ve had several roofs that need to be replaced that we’ve simply replaced or we’ve put off into the next year because we could get by.”
It’s been 20 years since Okaloosa County has had a sales tax in place for schools. In 2010, Okaloosa voters rejected a half-cent sales tax for school infrastructure. In 2018, the Okaloosa County School Board tabled the idea to put forth a ballot initiative on a sales tax following the scandal with former superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.
Now, with a new administration — and a perhaps the most trying time for schools in recent history — Chambers said he believes there’s a lot of support for public education.
“When you look at the School District in this pandemic, we wanted to make sure we were working with the community,” Chambers said. “It was important to feed the students who needed to be fed; I think it was important to be able to provide devices to students who needed devices during that time (remote learning).
“I think if there was ever a time in probably public education history, where the School District, the community and the families would come together in a partnership, this definitely exemplified that.”
Okaloosa County is one of two Florida districts without some form of an additional revenue for capital expenditures. The district spends about $237 per student which is a stark contrast to neighboring counties, such as Walton, which spends about $3,300 per student.
The county receives $30 million in funding for capital each year, but it’s spread fairly thin among its 31,000 students, especially in a district that struggles with old infrastructure.
“When you start looking at the $30 million and where does it go — approximately $6.5 million goes toward technology, another $5.5 million goes toward maintenance, then you start looking at safety and that’s approximately anywhere from another $6 (million) to $8 million, so that money can go quickly,” said Chambers. “You end up left with about $5 to $6 million to fix an entire School District when three roofs total costs about $1.3 million. If we are fortunate to receive a half-cent sales tax from the citizens of Okaloosa County, the word grateful would not be a big enough word.”
A majority of schools are also crowded at more than 90% capacity, said Chambers. Part of the half-cent initiative, which would sunset in 10 years, is about preparing for the future as the district prepares for inevitable growth.
“It’s a two-prong approach, it’s what we can do with the half-cent tax dollars to fix our schools, but we have to be responsible for and understanding the growth and be prepared to build new schools,” said Chambers.
Despite inadequate funding, Okaloosa schools have maintained “A” ratings over the past few years. But Chambers said school facilities don’t match the district’s performance.
Chambers said he’s not normally in favor of imposing taxes on citizens, but considering that approximately 56% of the half-cent sales tax revenue will be paid by tourists, and the significance of its benefit, he’s hopeful this tax will pass.
“I do believe that this tax needed and it will set the stage for the next generation of Okaloosa District schools.”