Saturday, January 20, 2018
Editorials

Pasco schools need more than natural gas buses

The intramural squabbling among members of the Pasco Republican Party shouldn't overshadow the public debate over renewing the Penny for Pasco sales tax.

On Tuesday, Pasco Republican State Committeeman Bill Bunting proposed to the county commission using a portion of the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax to outfit the school district with buses that run on natural gas instead of diesel fuel. His challenger for the party post, ex-Commissioner Steve Simon, and a Simon ally rebutted Bunting's position.

This personalty-driven argument is premature. The debate is based in part on Bunting's inaccurate premise that the district can divert a share of its sales tax proceeds away from school construction because of slowed growth. It is flawed logic that fails to account for the cost of maintaining campuses more than 40 years old compounded by state budgets that eliminated school maintenance money the past two years.

Even with revenue from the sales tax projected through 2024, the school district remains $200 million short of its estimated construction budget for the next 12 years. If the price estimates are accurate and state aid remains missing, it translates to completing just four-fifths of the project list.

Though priorities could be rearranged over the next decade — if voters renew the tax in the November election — the ability to lengthen the list by adding new natural-gas buses is limited.

The planned construction includes three new elementary schools to serve the Land O'Lakes-Wesley Chapel corridor, but much of the expected work involves refurbishing and, in some instances, enlarging 10 schools that opened in the early 1970s including Land O'Lakes, Hudson, Zephyrhills and Gulf high schools. Remodeling the so-called Kelley schools — named for their architect — is estimated to cost as much as $20 million per high school. Major renovations also are planned for some of the district's oldest schools including Rodney B. Cox Elementary in Dade City, which dates to 1925, and West Zephyrhills Elementary, which opened in 1958.

The to-do list includes replacing roofs at 11 schools, improving traffic flow and parking at 10 campuses, technology upgrades across the district, acquiring land for six school sites for future growth, covering walkways at existing schools, classroom additions, air-conditioning renovations, and paying down the district's $436 million debt that helped finance $642 million worth of spending, including opening 20 new schools since 2005.

The public debate about converting government and school district vehicles to a fleet powered by natural gas is a healthy exercise. But, it shouldn't begin with a faulty assumption about school construction needs. Failing to invest adequately in an aging school infrastructure will just bring greater costs to the public down the road.

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