BROOKSVILLE — Hernando School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino raised the question about a possible special election for a half-cent sales tax — "Is this something we should do?" he asked Tuesday — then delivered the most definite "yes."
"One way or another, we have to take care of our school system," said Guadagnino, who at last week's board workshop framed the passage of the tax as a moral imperative — and as a measure with a good chance of passing.
Board members Susan Duval and Mark Johnson agreed that the board should move forward, giving the issue the support of a narrow majority. Board members Matt Foreman and Beth Narverud were noncommittal.
At a Feb. 3 workshop, Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson will give the board a detailed explanation of the expense of holding a special election. Initial estimates are between $200,000 and $300,000. The board would then have to take a final vote to put a referendum before voters.
Agreeing to spend money on a special election not only would put the schools farther in the hole if the referendum fails; it might also send the wrong message to voters in a district claiming poverty, said Brevard County schools spokeswoman Michelle Irwin.
Voters approved a school tax measure there this fall after defeating it decisively in 2012. The Brevard board considered a special election after that loss, but decided against it.
"After taxpayers had told us they didn't want to raise taxes, it didn't seem wise to spend money we didn't have to ask them if they wanted to reconsider their position," Irwin said.
The Hernando board's situation is different, Guadagnino said after last week's meeting, because it would be asking a different question.
The request that voters rejected in November was a 1-cent sales tax to be shared by the schools, the county and the city of Brooksville — and that the city and county planned to spend mostly on transportation projects.
"Trying to build roads on the backs of our children was wrong," Guadagnino said at the meeting.
There's another difference between the Hernando district and others around the state that shied away from holding special elections. This would not be a new tax, Guadagnino said, but an extension of a previous 10-year sales tax that expired Jan. 1.
Duval said the school district might have made its own mistake in picking projects for the penny-tax revenue, most of which it planned to use to buy computerized tablets.
"I am not saying for a minute that we don't need technology," she said. "But I think technology may be less useful if your roofs are falling down. We've got to take care of our houses, and, in the district, the schools are our houses."
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If the board does decide to spend the potential revenue replacing roofs, air-conditioning units and other aging building components, there is lots of work to do, said Sean Arnold, the district's director of facilities, maintenance and security.
"By 2020, we will probably have five schools that need completely new (air-conditioning) units," said Arnold, who added that the total cost of replacing the units and other big-ticket items such as roofs, is estimated at $80 million over the next five years.
A half-cent tax would bring in about $86 million over 10 years.
Without the tax, Arnold said, the district has not identified a source of income that could pay for the improvements.
Earlier this month, the County Commission voted to put off reinstating school impact fees, another potential source of revenue. The district has also learned it may not qualify for $1.9 million in extra state funding it had been in line to receive as a small district.
The district is "down to nothing," Duval said at the meeting.
And there is no excuse for that, Guadagnino told his colleagues.
Growing up in a poor neighborhood in New York City, he said, everybody seemed willing to pay for the arts and sports programs needed to "build a well-rounded student. — They saw it as an investment, not a tax."
"Somebody paid for my education, and I'm happy to pay for somebody else's education," he said.
"Our schools are 12 percent of our population and 100 percent of our future."
Dan DeWitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ddewitttimes.