Saturday, February 24, 2018
Opinion

Long ballot, lengthy school needs worry Browning

Six days until the election and Kurt Browning is fretting.

You wouldn't expect that to be the case. He defeated two-term incumbent School Superintendent Heather Fiorentino by 38 percentage points in the August Republican primary and faces only a write-in candidate next week. That means only Browning's name will appear on the ballot.

This should be a breeze. Order the party platters. Keep working on the planned transition. Book your stay for the new superintendents' orientation in Gainesville later this month.

Browning's consternation, however, is pointed at the end of the ballot where the Penny for Pasco sales tax referendum sits. It follows 11 Constitutional amendments, and Browning and others are urging people to vote the bottom of the ballot first. They fear people will overlook the referendum.

The current tax doesn't expire until 2014, but supporters are seeking a 10-year extension now as an acknowledgement of the criticism eight years ago when the referendum appeared on a lower-turnout presidential primary ballot.

A lot more people will weigh in this time. By mid-day Wednesday, nearly 79,000 ballots had been cast for the Nov. 6 election. In March 2004, when voters first approved the sales tax, total turnout was less than 71,000.

So, Browning lends his voice to the recorded robocalls urging voters to approve the renewal. And Browning, moving from candidate to presumed superintendent-elect, worries about exactly what could happen to the Pasco School District if voters reject the referendum.

"I just think district is going to be in a world of hurt,'' he said.

Indeed.

Over the 10 years of the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax, the school district is projected to receive $226 million. Pasco County receives the same amount and six cities will divide $50 million.

The school district's share is targeted mostly to rebuild and/or modernize 48 schools, including upgrading computer technology capabilities. These aren't frills. These are imperative renovations.

Don't expect help from other sources. For the past two years, the Legislature failed to send education construction dollars to districts, choosing instead to finance charter schools. Meanwhile, the state is moving standardized testing online, requiring students to complete at least one online course to graduate high school, and switching required textbook purchases from paper to E-books.

"It's a perfect storm with all these requirements coming,'' said Browning. "Hopefully, we'll have a continued source of revenue. If that doesn't happen, I don't know.''

There is another name for that perfect storm. Unfunded mandate. The district is confronting more online demands from Tallahassee, but with little help to meet them.

However, the digital age isn't the only focus. In 2004, the worry was school crowding and the potential for double sessions if voters rejected the Penny for Pasco two years after approving the amendment to the Florida Constitution mandating smaller class sizes. The sales tax was a key part of financing a six-year, 20-school construction plan.

In 2012, the concern is for schools crumbling and the maintenance expenses tied to the upkeep of nearly 40-year-old buildings put together to meet a population boom in the 1970s.

Consider the math with which the district maintenance guys have to work. Just a couple of years ago, they listed $18 million worth of needed work involving 225 separate projects. They had to make due with $3 million to finance just 36 items. And this was before the state cut out capital construction money to districts.

It must be noted that the Penny for Pasco, known as an infrastructure surcharge, is used for capital investments. That is state law. It cannot be used for teacher salaries, fuel or the costs associated with extracurricular activities like athletics and marching bands. Those budget headaches will not disappear if the sales tax is renewed.

So, the nation is fixated on the presidency. Floridians also are considering a U.S. Senate race and Pasco voters have races for a County Commission seat, constitutional officers and a county judge on the ballot. And Browning admits he is more worried about the Penny for Pasco than anything else on the ballot.

No wonder. Come Tuesday night, Pasco will find out if its schoolchildren will learn in buildings outfitted for the 21st century or the disco era.

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