Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Education

School Board needed to give full-throated 'yes' to fees

The Hernando County School Board needed to show strength and unity.

It needed to be a firm advocate for students. Its members needed to take political heat, which, in turn, would have turned up the flame on the County Commission.

And at last week's meeting it didn't do any of those things. Some of its members tried, but as a group the board sent a wishy-washy message that will be easy to ignore.

It was weak. It was about as divided as it is possible to be.

Though the minutes will show that it recommended the results of a new impact fee study by a 3-2 majority, the vote was more like 2.51-2.49.

As expected, Cynthia Moore and Dianne Bonfield cast the two solid "yes" votes for the report, which found that every new house in Hernando creates the need for nearly $7,000 worth of new school facilities.

Bonfield, in particular, seemed to understand how badly the fees will be needed to cover the $222 million in major expenses schools will face over the next decade. And considering that builders, and therefore most of the Republican Party, have been on a multiyear crusade against these fees, it took some guts for Bonfield to say she embraced them "wholeheartedly."

Which brings us to board member John Sweeney, who recently announced he planned to run for re-election, and who barely put half a heart behind his "yes" vote.

Yes, this position was better than his suggestion at last month's workshop that the board could just forward the report to the commission with no recommendation at all.

But it started off being much better. He said he would never consider the portable classrooms still used at some schools to be a permanent solution. He reminded the board it is responsible for maintaining high-quality eduction, a mission that the state Constitution considers of "paramount" importance.

Then he said that if somebody wanted to dump the recommended fee in favor of a smaller one pulled out of thin air, he'd be okay with that, too.

That somebody was board Chairman Matt Foreman, who along with the Gus Guadagnino voted against the recommendation. Foreman called the $7,000 the "maximum defensible" amount, leaving the impression that the report presented a range of options and that most board members had set their heart on the most expensive one — which is not true.

The consultants came up with the recommended amount by studying factors such as the cost of new schools, how much of these schools each student occupies, and how many students are in the average new home.

It's not the "highest" amount. It's the precise amount needed for development to pay for itself rather than pushing these expenses on the rest of us.

Foreman also said he was just being practical, that a lower sum would go down easier with the commission, which is ultimately responsible for charging these fees, and which hasn't charged the full amount for education since 2009.

But that approach is wrong, too. The board needed to say that the fees are not only fair but necessary. It needed to tell people that commissioners who vote against the fees would be voting against high-quality education in Hernando.

The board had to make it tough on commissioners. But that would have required a few board members to be a little tougher themselves.

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