The Gulf County School Board is likely to ask voters to again provide funding to bolster the operational bottom line in the spring.
With the one mil additional operating levy approved by voters nearly four years ago to expire at the end of the fiscal year in June and the bottom line for public schools shrinking to sliding property values and declining enrollment, board members expressed the very real need to ask voters to additional funding next year.
A mil is equal to $1 for every $1,000 in taxable personal property tax and the value of that mil has steadily declined over the past four years – worth more than $2.2 million when passed by voters the additional mil is now worth $1.3 million.
That means over the four-year life of the levy the district realized $4 million less in funding that originally projected.
In addition, declining enrollment means less funding in the per-student-based formula used by the state.
Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton said during a workshop last week that decision time is approaching for the School Board to return to voters for assistance or face its own fiscal cliff.
“In the coming months we are going to have to make some decisions,” Norton said. “We need to have consensus on the board on this and we need to get community support.
“What we are fighting for is our system.”
The discussion centered on one of three options: asking voters to approve the full mil for another four years; asking for three-quarters of a mil; or asking for a half mil.
“In my own assessment, I don’t think (a full mil) would pass,” Norton said. “It was a close vote four years ago. There are a lot of taxpayers who don’t have kids in the school system and pay high taxes.
“I think we need to reward the public for paying this for four years. I think it is an easier sell to come with something less.”
He told board members they would have to decide by next month whether to request that the Board of County Commissioners call for a special election – four years ago ballots were mailed out and back in – with the election likely in March.
Norton sought feedback from board members.
“I would support it because of what we are facing,” said board member Danny Little.
In addition to state and local funding issues, the deadlock in Congress which could send the country toward what pundits are calling a “fiscal cliff” would have significant impacts on the district, said Sara Joe Wooten, assistant superintendent for instruction.
She said due to the impasse, districts could see 9 percent of Title I and Title VI funds sequestered, or held back, by the federal government, which would impact programs and some granted-funded staff positions.
“If Congress does not do something we could be in real trouble,” Wooten said.
The additional one mil operational levy expires June 30 and the combination of declining enrollment – the public schools have lost 400 students the past decade – and dropping property values is estimated to already project to a $500,000 shortfall from current revenue, said district financial officer Sissy Worley.
Therefore, Norton said, without the additional mil the next fiscal year appears to shape as providing $1.8 million less in revenue for the district than the current one.
“We are going to have cuts no matter what,” Norton said.
Further, the district awaits the legal outcome over the 3 percent the state mandated public employees pay toward their own retirement – if the measure falls in court, the district would be back on the hook for those funds, around $300,000.
“My feeling is we ask for again for that mil because of what we are up against,” said board chair Billy Quinn, Jr.
Board members also sketched out their case.
The district has been an honor roll district and a high-performing district over the past five years. Board members also noted they had kept the one component of school funding over which they have any sway, Local Capital Improvement millage, or bricks and mortar dollars, down over the past six years.
Districts are permitted to levy up to 1.50 mils for LCI – it was two mils four years ago – while the district has not been above half a mil in over five years.
“Because we have done that is a reason we are here today,” said board member Linda Wood.
The district has also shed some 50 staff positions over the past four years, reduced the number of sports schools participate in, consolidated middle and high schools and, as promised when the additional mil levy was before voters four years ago, retired the half-cent sales tax for Port St. Joe Elementary School eight years early.
“We have done our part,” said board member John Wright. “Six years in a row we’ve had the lowest LCI in the state. I know something has to be done. I would love to say we don’t need it but we do. I think we can make the case.”
The case can be made, several board members noted, based on the impacts of not having additional operating funding and seeing a $1.8 million shortfall.
That, Worley said, would be a minimum of 40-50 jobs lost.
“A districts, high-performing district, there is a cost,” Quinn said. “This is a need. This is about jobs again.”
Sports and other extracurricular activities would see significant cuts. The district would also face the viable possibility that it would unable to meet constitutionally-mandated class-size ratios under that scenario.
“We’ve got to preserve our schools,” Norton said. “If we lose our revenue stream we will lose our viability.”
Wood said that another critical aspect to the equation is holding the line in some areas as the board promised four years ago when going to voters. The board and superintendent pledged a portion of their salaries to the district – and at least two board members continue to do so – and promised to keep LCI millage down below a half mil.
“I think similar promises need to be made,” Wood said. “We wouldn’t be asking this if we didn’t need it for the children.”