With the end of the economic recession and the return of population growth and new housing construction, it's clearer than ever that Pasco County needs more schools and doesn't have the money to pay for them. It's so clear that the school district and the home builders reached a last-minute compromise Monday over significantly raising impact fees on new houses. The Pasco County Commission should approve the agreement today — and be mindful that even this investment will not be enough to solve every overcrowding issue in every school.
For at least a decade, Pasco school officials have been talking about raising the impact fee to help build more schools to meet the demands of the county's rising population. A 2008 proposal to raise the fee by several thousand dollars was ignored by county officials. That effort stalled during the recession but resumed in December as the School Board approved a new impact fee study that found the fee would nearly double on a single-family home, from $4,828 to $9,028.
The need for the significant jump is obvious. Too many Pasco schools are significantly overcrowded. Add to that another 16,000 students the school district expects over the next decade from families moving into new houses. That will require probably five new schools. With the Tampa Bay Builders Association opposing such an immediate jump in the impact fee, Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning pled the school district's case on social media. He recounted efforts to deal with overcrowding and noted Wiregrass Ranch High School has been on a 10-period day for two years, school enrollment boundaries have been redrawn and a new combined high school/middle school is in Wesley Chapel. Yet a quarter of Pasco's schools are overcrowded, and Browning argued that new growth should pay for itself as he urged residents to lobby county commissioners to raise the impact fee.
The compromise reached between the school district and the home builders Monday should make the county commissioners' decision easier today. Instead of doubling the impact fee immediately, the deal calls for a gradual, three-year phase-in. The impact fee on new homes would rise to $7,128 in January and work its way up to $8,328 by the third year. The increase would raise about $220 million over 10 years, about $14 million less than the original proposal but enough to build four more schools. That likely won't take care of all of the overcrowding, but it would be an excellent start.
Of course, Pasco County would not have to raise its impact fee on new homes so high if the Florida Legislature wasn't so stingy or so obsessed with charter schools. The 2017-18 state budget continues the misguided practice of equally dividing school maintenance and construction money between charter schools, which are privately operated public schools, and traditional public schools that serve the overwhelming majority of students. Lawmakers also forced local school districts to direct a portion of local property taxes meant for school construction to charter schools. For putting Pasco School Board members and county commissioners into this box, Pasco voters can thank one of their own: House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. Corcoran favors charter schools over traditional public schools and argues school districts spend too much on building opulent schools while students in his county sit in overcrowded classrooms.
Pasco's proposed impact fee for new school construction, even when fully implemented in three years, will be lower than similar fees now in counties such as Polk, Orange and Broward. It will be a few thousand dollars higher than the impact fee in Hillsborough County, which ranges up to $5,200. Pinellas, which has little new-home construction, does not have a similar impact fee.
For Pasco County, today is an opportunity to invest in the future after years of delays. County commissioners should approve the compromise between the school district and the home builders on the school impact fee and move forward.