Saturday, February 24, 2018
Education

If voters extend penny tax, list of school projects is long

LAND O'LAKES — Backers of extending the Penny for Pasco sales tax for another decade are fond of the phrase "promises made, promises kept."

Nearly a decade ago, officials set out specific lists of how they would spend the Penny, and proponents say they've lived up to that list. Even some opponents of the original 2004 measure became supporters after attending the Pasco school district's oversight committee meetings, where members kept tabs on Penny-supported projects and their associated budgets.

"As we reviewed the projects, it was very important to us … that they trusted us," said John Petrashek, school district director of new construction. "It was ingrained in us to make sure we fulfilled the commitments. … If we haven't hit all of them, we've hit most of them."

By the time the 10-year life of the tax is up, it's expected to generate $139 million for the school district (not counting the roughly $8.5 million annual reimbursement the district received to offset a property tax cut, which officials promised to voters who approved the sales tax increase).

When promoting the original tax, the district made plans to build nine schools and improve 10 existing campuses. The projects by and large got done as promised. The differences came mainly in the details.

For instance, the original plan called for two middle schools, one in Shady Hills and one in the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel. Both got built, but just one — Crews Lake Middle — was purchased with Penny funds. John Long Middle opened as intended, but officials freed up other revenues to pay for it.

The project list also included five new elementary schools, including three in west Pasco and two in south-central Pasco. Five new elementary schools did rise using sales tax money — Veterans, Oakstead, New River, Double Branch and Gulf Trace — but just one of those (Gulf Trace) was in west Pasco. The others all were along the State Road 54 corridor between Odessa and Wesley Chapel.

The School Board did purchase land in Hudson intending to erect an elementary school, but never built there.

District planning director Chris Williams said the ultimate decision on where to place the schools hinged primarily on population demands. Growth anticipated in Hudson never materialized, he explained, while families poured into the south-central region of the county.

"We're not going to just go build a new school for the sake of building it," Williams said.

The plan called for and supported two new high schools, Anclote and Sunlake.

The construction program also included major renovations at Pasco, Centennial, Cox, and San Antonio elementary schools; Pasco, Stewart and Gulf middle schools; and Pasco, Gulf and Zephyrhills high schools. With a few small exceptions, all the details were attended to, from new roofing and air conditioning at Gulf Middle to a classroom replacements at Stewart Middle.

Because of savings in some areas, the district was able to expand initiatives at several schools, adding to the scope of work. Zephyrhills High, for instance, got an unscheduled new security system, bleacher renovations, parking lot repairs and science lab remodeling.

Improvements at Pasco Middle, including a new media center, cafeteria and classrooms, grew from a planned $4.3 million expense to a $9.3 million effort. Pasco High's overhaul, including new classroom buildings, expanded from an initial $5 million budget to a $17.3 million project that changed the school's entire look.

A few of the projects, such as improvements to the music and art classrooms at Cox Elementary and new freezers and coolers at Pasco High, are set for 2013-14. The district expects to receive more than $220 million if voters decide Nov. 6 to renew the Penny for another decade. Officials have a long list of projects for which that money would be slated.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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