As they confront ways to cope with Pasco's growth, school district officials are proposing "a very significant increase" to school impact fees.
The proposal could add "several thousands more" to the current rate of $4,356 per new home, said assistant superintendent Ray Gadd.
The district's consultants are still working on the numbers, but the proposed hike could end up hogging the limelight at a joint workshop Monday in New Port Richey, when top brass from the county and district meet to pore over a new "interlocal agreement."
The agreement governs how the two agencies manage school overcrowding, a chronic concern in fast-growing Pasco.
The revamped agreement is poised to make the school district a more powerful player in Pasco's growth management. It introduces a numbers-based, zone-driven system to even out the impact of new residents.
But it's coming at a time when money problems dog the district.
Despite a slightly lower property tax rate the district is imposing this year, state funding for Pasco schools could drop by $14-million, the district's finance chief Olga Swinson said. Rising enrollment and fixed costs like utilities and insurance wipe out most of this year's 15 percent growth in tax rolls.
Statewide property tax reductions could slash Pasco's school budget by $44.6-million next year, Swinson said.
The impact fee is a county tax on new homeowners to offset their burden on the educational system.
But its role here is a small part in a larger play about state-mandated reforms on an old quarrel: the clash between residential growth and adequate schools.
Its roots go back two years to a 2005 Legislature decision that called for sweeping changes to school planning.
Two things the lawmakers wanted: First, schools have to be accounted for in counties' development blueprints, called comprehensive plans. Second, schools must have adequate capacity to serve growing populations.
State officials want to be able to approve Pasco's reform package, called "concurrency requirements," by February 2008. This means Pasco has got to come up with an affordable way for its schools to accommodate population growth projected over the next five, 10 and 20 years.
That's a tall order for the eighth-fastest growing county in the United States.
The system that existed before was an agreement that tried to lay out cost-sharing arrangements between the district and the county, but left wide discretion on schools' building needs to the county administration.
Gadd argues that this meant there was effectively no system at all.
The failures resulted in several public clashes between district and county. Two examples:
In May 2006, talks broke down between the county and district over the proposed Boca Vista high school in west Pasco over who would pay for a $300,000 set of traffic signals.
In February 2007, things fell apart over a proposed Hudson high school, because county and district couldn't agree on who should pay for a $4.2-million package of road improvements.
A new threshold
In the new system, Pasco will be divided into zones based on population densities in different parts of the county: 11 zones for elementary schools, four for middle schools and 11 for high schools.
The district is proposing to reach, within five years, a target threshold of 115 percent for elementary and middle school capacity, and 105 percent for high schools. This means a school can hold at most 5 or 15 percent more students than it's supposed to by 2013.
A developer coming in won't be able to build if the number of new students it generates would bust that threshold, unless it pays for new schools.
But the developer can negotiate with district officials if there is spare capacity in adjacent zones. That means some students may end up shifting to a school in another zone.
The effect would even out population growth without having students bused unreasonable distances to new schools.
But it could also mean a politically explosive exercise of annually redrawing school zones.
"Adjacency will be one of the biggest issues," Gadd said. "The only way to solve it is to constantly tweak boundaries."
The problem is daunting in overcrowded parts of the county.
For example, even within the district's five-year proposal, six of the eight elementary schools in Wesley Chapel would break the 115 percent threshold in 2013.
The new system hopes to smooth out the district average by using spare capacity in adjacent zones.
Paying for growth
The nub of this plan is that it must be affordable.
This means the district has to be able to raise enough money from new residents to meet their projected needs. If it can't, then the 115 percent threshold, called the "level of service," must be raised, which would set back the whole effort at concurrency. It's into this setting that the proposed impact fee hike enters.
The proposal comes amid a gloomy scenario of falling state revenues. The fallout means Pasco's schools could reach a deficit of $55.9-million in 2011. This year, the capital fund for school building is already projected to fall by $13-million.
A special legislative session is slated in September to deal with a state budget deficit of more than $1-billion. Educators fear cuts to programs like Classrooms for Kids, which partly fund school construction.
"In a nutshell, right now it doesn't look pretty," said Betty Coxe, executive director of Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability, in an e-mail to her advisory board members.
These are the uncharted waters that county, municipal and school officials will wade into at Monday's workshop.
"It's a tough one," Gadd said. "But you've got to build schools, and somebody's got to shoulder the burden."
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.