Florida schools need more capital projects funding, superintendents say (again)
Florida's superintendents association has again renewed its request to return the local property tax rate for construction, maintenance and equipment to $2 per $1,000 of assessed value.
They've been making the case for several years, since lawmakers capped the rate at $1.50 per $1,000 nearly a decade ago. At the time, the state was in the middle of a recession, and the idea was to shift a portion of the 2 mills into cash-strapped schools' operating budgets.
"It was not a strategy we disagreed with," St. Johns superintendent Joe Joyner told the Florida Board of Education during a workshop Wednesday.
At first, districts had the ability to impose a "critical needs" tax rate to increase their funding. But the Legislature did not renew that authority, nor did it return the tax rate to its original level. Meanwhile, it reduced state funding for capital projects, and districts saw many needs -- things like repairs, replacements and new construction -- go unmet. Overall, according to the superintendents association, districts are bringing in $1 billion less in capital funding than nine years ago.
Several districts have convinced voters to approve a local sales tax to pay for some of the needs. Others have approved bond sales. But efforts to get lawmakers to return the capital projects tax rate cap to 2 mills have fallen short each year. In the 2016 legislative session, discussion centered on how to give more capital funding to charter schools.
"I use the term 'restore the millage,' and not 'raise taxes,'" Joyner said, pointing out one of the key stumbling blocks.
State Board member Andy Tuck, a former Highlands County School Board member, expressed doubt that lawmakers will ever consider increasing the millage rate again. However, he did suggest the need is evident when it comes to student transportation issues.
The state currently covers about 60 percent of the busing costs, with the remainder coming out of general operating funds. Lately, that has included the expense of new buses.
"These rural districts desperately need some help," Tuck said. "There's huge money coming out of the classroom because of transportation. ... Even giving the half-mill back to the rural counties, it doesn't mean a whole lot compared to what you're spending."
State Board member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey said she was empathetic to the rural districts' plight, and asked for more information in advance of the board's final action on its legislative agenda.