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Schools: 7 tax this way or that

If an effort to boost Pasco County's sales tax by one penny fails to get the unanimous support of the County Commission, then the School Board should consider "going it alone," school superintendent John Long said.

Long said anything less than unanimous support from commissioners "would kill" the idea with Pasco voters.

"It's too hard and too much work to do it without" unanimous support, Long told the School Board on Tuesday night. "We may just have to go it alone."

Long and other public officials have floated the tax hike idea recently as a way to fund capital improvements around the county. The school district needs to build $170-million worth of new schools over the next five years, yet it anticipates having $120-million to do so.

Long estimated that a 1-cent increase in the sales tax, which is currently 6 cents, would raise $31-million a year. If approved with the commissioners' support, the school district and county would each claim 45 percent of the revenues, with the rest going to Pasco municipalities.

Long said the smartest move for the School Board would be to join forces with the County Commission and cities. The Municipal Association of Pasco, which represents the county's six cities, voted this month to explore the idea.

But if all five county commissioners don't back the effort, Long said, then the School Board might better take it up itself, as it did in 1995.

That proposal, though, was hammered at the polls as voters shot it down by a nearly 2-1 ratio.

The County Commission has not formally discussed the idea, but three members have said they would support the effort. Two _ Pat Mulieri and Steve Simon _ aren't quite on board yet, although they haven't said they would oppose the measure either.

"I'm not saying that I support it," Mulieri said Wednesday, "but I'm willing to be part of the dialogue."

Simon did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

New Port Richey City Manager Gerald Seeber said the Municipal Association agrees with Long: Any effort without the full support of the commission would likely fail.

"Without a wide variety of support, it won't pass with the electorate," he said.

Long said the district has "positioned itself well" to advocate for the increase this time around. In 2000, Pasco's administrative costs were the second lowest in the state, at $331 per student.

The district also desperately needs to build new schools. So many children attend school each day in portable classrooms that those students could fill nine elementary schools.

"We've really got some critical needs," Long said.

_ Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is kfischersptimes.com.

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