The Franklin County School District plans to put a half-cent sales tax referendum on the November ballot that if approved by voters, could bring in upwards of $1.3 million annually to be spent on the capital improvement needs of both the Franklin County School and the Apalachicola Bay Charter School.
By unanimous vote at its Feb. 24 meeting, the school board approved moving forward with the process that requires a state audit of the proposed spending plan, as well as formal approval by county commissioners before Supervisor of Elections Heather Riley can have the referendum question placed on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The wording of the question, as required by state law, will be specific but not detailed, likely to ask whether a half-cent sales tax should be levied for the “acquisition, construction, re-construction, renovation, remodeling or improvement of school facilities (including) safety and security improvements and technology hardware and software.”
The ballot language is slated to be approved by the school board on April 28, followed by sending the resolution to the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability for a performance audit to be completed by the first week of September.
County commissioners would have to OK by July placing the measure on the November ballot, and Riley would have to have all that approved paperwork by Aug. 1.
The district plans to detail how it would spend the money in actions leading up to the campaign for passage, said Superintendent Steve Lanier, and will conduct a series of town hall meetings in September and October, from Alligator Point to Apalachicola, to answer questions that county voters may have.
“I am not necessarily against this,” said School Board Chairman Stacy Kirvin, in voting to move forward with the ballot measure. “We need complete transparency and a definitive plan on how the money would be spent.”
Lanier has pushed for the half-cent sales tax, noting that 25 districts in Florida have it in place, including Bay and Leon, where local residents often do some of their shopping, as well as Calhoun, Washington and Jackson counties. Wakulla is working to get it on their ballot in November.
“Eventually, every county is going to get it done,” said Lanier. “Residents, tourists, and people passing through the county help pay with a sales tax, including the thousands of tourists who visit our county each year. That way, the burden doesn’t fall solely to homeowners or residents of Franklin County.
The superintendent has argued that the district has several aging buildings that need to be shored up, most prominent of which is the bus barn in Carrabelle now being housed at the former high school gymnasium.
He said construction costs are continuing to rise and that now is the fiscally-responsible time to anticipate and address future needs.
“If you don’t do it now, when are you going to do it?” he said. “Everything is going up and every year we wait, it’s going to cost that much more. The intelligent thing is to build it now and not wait until costs get higher.
“With the half cent sales tax, the school district has the ability to raise a significant amount of money in a short period of time, meaning we could pay for these projects as we go,” Lanier said.
He has supported moving the district’s administrative and educational facilities on the central campus in Eastpoint, and then coming up with creative uses of the former Brown Elementary School campus where they are now housed.
This move could include putting the alternative school and the pre-Kindergarten programs now at Brown onto the main campus.
“It‘s a 10-mile round trip drive; my directors are over there all the time,” he said. “It would be more convenient if we were there, right there on campus.”
While nothing is set in stone yet on how the money would be spent, Lanier has floated the idea of then selling off the Brown campus. “We could sell it to a developer to put in housing set aside for teachers and staff,” Lanier said.
He said the ABC School, which would receive a proportion of the money equivalent to its enrollment, has talked about replacing the roof on the former Chapman Elementary School where it is housed.
The possible construction of an auditorium on the main campus, to replace the existing “cafetorium,” also is being considered.
“I see us needing an auditorium down the line,” Lanier said. “To me it would be a much nicer environment for us to be in, more professional looking.”
Groceries, prescription medicine, and gasoline are all tax-exempt in Florida so they would not be affected. Taxable items include physical property, such as furniture, home appliances, and motor vehicles, as well as clothing, prepared food and over-the-counter drugs.
Lanier has estimated that the additional half-cent will cost a person with an income of $56,000 about $6 per month or $72 per year.