Saturday, November 18, 2017
Opinion

Pasco schools require more than buildings, technology

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The Pasco School District wants to spend $12 million to upgrade technology at 25 elementary schools, but can't find enough qualified people to keep the computers up and running at some of those same schools.

The juxtaposition illustrates a dilemma confronting a community that invests willingly in its bricks-and-mortar infrastructure, but is reticent to do likewise in human resources.

Want proof? Voters approved the Penny for Pasco sales tax in 2004 to pay for schools and other public improvements, and the upcoming vote to renew the tax faces no organized opposition. Yet, in 2010, the electorate turned down a two-year extension of a small property tax to stave off school budget cuts and 105 employee lay-offs.

In other words, we'll pay for the classrooms, but not the educators and support personnel.

So, on this Labor Day weekend — after you've had your fill of the Republican National Convention or perhaps awaiting the Democratic party gathering in North Carolina — take some time to digest recent developments that should focus attention on the area labor pool.

Let's start with that aforementioned campaign to renew the Penny for Pasco sales tax. It is kicking into high gear and the referendum will be considered by voters on the Nov. 6 ballot. If renewed, the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax will pay for school upgrades, safer roads, public safety equipment, preserved land and incentives to lure new jobs to the county. The Pasco School District intends to spend a projected $226 million rebuilding and improving existing schools including earmarking nearly $24 million for technology. The upgrades are needed as standardized testing, grade posting and even more teaching moves on-line.

Meanwhile, as Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek reported, elementary schools can't attract sufficient technology specialists. In a 2011 cost-cutting maneuver — after voters rejected the property tax extension — the School Board eliminated some information-technology jobs and forced those who remained to work part-time at multiple schools. Filling those split jobs is proving problematic.

No wonder. Computer occupations have the second-most job openings (after health care) in a four-county Tampa Bay area, according to a Brookings Institution report released last week. The study documented the widely held belief that the schooling level of the region's available workforce fails to match the education requirements of the posted job opportunities.

What information technology worker is going to shuttle willingly between two elementary schools if better opportunities exist both within the district and elsewhere in the private sector?

Here is a much more important question: How can the public school system, colleges and universities close the gap between education attainment and job supply in order to produce a workforce capable of filling employment openings?

Just one in five Pasco County adults has a bachelor's degree or higher. That is better than neighboring Hernando County where just 16 percent of the adult population graduated college, but it falls significantly short of the rest of the state (nearly 26 percent) and nation (almost 28 percent). The Brookings Institution reported nearly 43 percent of the Tampa Bay area's job openings required at least a college degree.

Consider the recent high-profile successes of Pasco's economic developers. T. Rowe Price bought land to build a campus and locate 1,600 jobs at State Road 54 and Sunlake Boulevard. Raymond James Financial plans to put two office towers and 750 employees in the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel.

Meanwhile, the proposed renewal of the Penny for Pasco includes $40 million over 10 years for unspecified incentives that could include traditional infrastructure improvements or tax rebates that will be offered to other industries willing to locate here.

Certainly, the new employment centers bring a much-needed diversification and expansion of the county's tax base and those high-wage paychecks will bolster spending within the local economy.

But the focus can't stray from devising a long-term plan to boost educational attainment. Otherwise, Pasco will have spent considerable effort and resources to attract new jobs that most of its own workforce will be unqualified to fill.

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