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School mailing murky on where tax goes

School leaders are hopeful the Penny for Pasco sales tax increase would bring in $196.8-million for schools over 10 years. That's enough, district administrators have figured, to build nine new schools and make improvements at 10.

Why, then, is the Pasco County School District about to spend $10,000 to $12,000 on a pro-Penny mailing that lists $858.2-million worth of construction projects _ including 20 new schools and maintenance and renovations at 59 more _ as "what we'll get" if Penny for Pasco passes?

"I've never had one single person bring that up," superintendent John Long said. "All I can say to you is we were trying to be as upfront and honest" as possible by showing the district's entire construction plan.

In October, the Pasco County School District became the first of the affected government agencies to release a list of building projects that would become possible if the 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax passed.

They made it clear to reporters at the time that the $858.2-million list was a 10-year plan that included how the district intended to spend all of its revenues earmarked for capital outlay _ the penny money plus other state and local revenues.

But that distinction isn't quite so clear in the literature distributed by the district and the Pasco's Citizens Committee, which is pro-Penny.

A flier posted in schools and that administrators say is soon to be in the mail to parents _ entitled "Quality Schools for Pasco" _ opens up to a 11-by-17-inch list of countywide school construction projects. The list is topped by the words "Our Share of the Penny Will Allow Us To" with phrases beneath that include "Build New Schools" and "Complete Renovation Projects In All Of Our Schools." Then, beneath that, a detailed account of $858.2-million in planned school projects opens: "Here's what we'll get."

Long said the literature was not intended to be misleading.

The district has clearly stated in presentations and to the media that the Penny list that has been circulated so far is a composite of all funds in all parts of the county, he said.

"It was my position we should show every penny of our revenues because we'll really be subject to criticism if we don't put all of that in," he said.

Long pointed to a smaller statement in italics in the bottom left corner of the flier that reads, "The school system's share of the penny, along with existing capital outlay funds, will allow us to meet the demands of growth and ensure that our kids are not shortchanged."

Similar wording is incorporated into a new mailout from Pasco's Citizens Committee: "During the 10-year-life of the Penny for Pasco, over $141-million in new funds will be added to existing sources to allow the Pasco County School Board to: Build 20 NEW schools to reduce class sizes and keep up with growth to avoid double sessions."

Tax critic Ann Bunting said it's still not clear.

"People are getting the impression that all of these schools will not be built unless the Penny goes into effect," said Bunting, founder of the Citizens Against a Penny for Pasco. "They should be circulating the smaller list to say that this is supplementary to the huge capital budget they're already getting."

Long said if the district was really striving to be political in the way it was presenting the tax to the public, the actual list of $196.8-million in Penny-tied projects would likely have been spread more evenly around the county.

The list that he and Chief Financial Officer Chuck Rushe gave the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday had little to offer for high-growth central Pasco in comparison with the district's total 10-year plan.

But Rushe said that was because he wanted to ensure the highest priority projects would definitely be paid for, Penny or no Penny.

Still, he and Long said failure of the Penny initiative most likely would push some schools' planned maintenance and repair projects behind the need for new schools.

"I think if this doesn't pass, their (the School Board's) No. 1 priority will be to build classrooms to deal with growth," Long said.

Set for a March 9 vote, Penny for Pasco is projected to bring in about $437-million over 10 years to benefit county roads, school construction and municipal needs. The school district and county government would each get 45 percent of the revenue, with the cities splitting the remainder.

The election will mark the second time Pasco schools have sought a sales tax to benefit schools in nine years. Voters rejected a 1995 proposal by 64 to 36 percent. With 57,000 students now and another 2,000 coming in every year, Pasco is the state's fifth fastest-growing school district.

_ Rebecca Catalanello covers education in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is rcatalanellosptimes.com.

What the penny buys for schools

If voters approve the Penny for Pasco sales tax initiative on March 9, school leaders say they will be able to build nine schools and complete construction at 10 others. These $196.8-million in projects are only one piece of the 10-year, $858.2-million overall construction plan that has been circulated in pro-Penny literature. The Penny-tied list released Wednesday by school officials includes the following:

+ Five new elementary schools, three in west Pasco, two in south-central, $57-million

+ Two middle schools in the eastern half of the county, $42.6-million

+ Two high schools in the western half of the county, $59.3-million

+ Centennial Elementary, $2.6-million _ replace roof, add covered walkways, install security

+ Cox Elementary, $1.2-million _ replace roof, add covered walkway, additional music and art classrooms, install elevator

+ Gulf Middle, $2.9-million _ replace roof, heating and air conditioning, improve drop off area, remodel labs and add electrical upgrades, remodel gym, install security system, remodel existing building to create classroom space

+ Gulf High, $2-million _ repair roof, add parking and bus loops, locker rooms and career resource center, remodel guidance area, upgrade technology and lighting

+ Pasco Elementary, $1.2-million _ install security, new roof, renovate old classrooms, address traffic flow and parking

+ Pasco High, $5-million _ replace gym floor, covered walkways, install elevators, remodel classrooms, repair air conditioning, replace locker rooms, install cameras

+ Pasco Middle, $4.3-million _ air conditioning, alarm system, renovate classrooms, replace roofing, replace fire alarm

+ San Antonio Elementary, $1.4-million _ renovate restrooms, additional parking, covered sidewalks

+ Stewart Middle, $15.9-million _ gym AC system, renovate and rebuild wings, repair roof, install alarm system, add bus loop, athletic track

+ Zephyrhills High, $1.4-million _ resurface track, replace gym floor, upgrade lighting, new cafeteria, install cameras/alarm system

TOTAL: $196.8-million

_ Source: Pasco County School District

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