The Gulf County School Board voted unanimously last week to request a special election in the spring to ask voters to approve a one mil additional operating levy.
In effect, the board is asking that voters continue their support expressed four years ago when a one mil additional operating levy was approved by ballot.
The district is currently in the final fiscal year in which it will receive that levy, which sunsets after four years.
“If the voters support use we will be able to maintain education as we know it,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton while asking the board to move forward on a full mil levy. “If they do not, we would be a lot less viable.
“We are trying to maintain our viability in a tough economy.
The board unanimously approved a resolution requesting that the Board of County Commissioners, which must sign off on any county-wide special election, agree to conduct a special election on March 5, 2013.
Not yet decided is whether the election will be conducted by mailed ballots, reducing the costs, as was the case four years ago.
Norton and board chair Linda Wood said they would look at the most economical way to conduct the election with Supervisor of Elections-elect John Hanlon.
Simply, the math is tilting against the district.
In the past four years since the additional operating levy was approved, declining property values have eroded the value of one mil and the district has realized roughly $4 million less that projected in the run-up to the vote.
In that same span, the district budget has fallen from roughly $21 million to under $16 million.
Norton emphasized that school property taxes fell by 5 percent this past year alone.
But with declining enrollment – the district has lost almost 400 students the past decade and Port St. Joe Elementary alone is projected to be down another 40 students next year – the funding from the state, based on enrollment and the property tax base, as left the district fighting an operational shortfall for several years.
Compounding that is the reality that the board has any real sway over just one component of the budget, Local Capital Improvement.
The district has one of the lowest LCI millage rates in the state, at .400 mils and could raise it to as much as 1.50 mils, but that money can only be used for “bricks and mortar”, equipment, building needs, but not personnel or operating funds.
Norton said he and staff had already identified some $600,000 in cuts – after some $1.5 million last fiscal year – that will likely take place no matter the outcome of the special election, but added that the district would face a shortfall of $1.8 million dollars if voters do not stay the course on the additional mil levy.
“It won’t be school as normal if we lose that one mil,” said board member John Wright, who said the impacts would be significant and across the board, impacting not only education but extracurricular activities.”
The district would also face a potential issue with addressing a state constitutional amendment which mandates teacher/student ratios at each grade level.
The district is losing a second-grade teacher at Port St. Joe Elementary after the first of the year and will not be hiring a permanent replacement, at least in the short-term.
“We are in an attrition mode,” Norton said. “There is just not much meat left on the bone.
“We are in a bad economic crunch. When we say we are paring as much as we can, we are paring as much as we can.”
District officials also believe they have a strong case for voter approval of the additional mil levy.
“We may be small, but we are not small-time,” Wood said. “We need to put good people with our children. We need this for the children to continue to the quality education they are getting.”
The district has been an honor roll district – based primarily on results from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test from which school grades some – and a high-performing district, which adds financial accountability and responsibility to the mix, for five consecutive years.
Dual-enrollment in the high schools has been increasing for three years – last year one student received his high school and AA degree the same month.
The district’s graduation rate – this year it is 94 – is consistently in the top five among all districts in the state and is 20 percentage points above the state average.
“We have a wonderful school system,” said board member Billy Quinn, Jr. “In order to keep that, there are costs. We are beckoning to the community to stand behind us.”
Further, board members noted during a meeting last Thursday, they have held the line on property taxes and particularly the LCI portion and even contributed a portion of their own salaries to the district.
“We have done our jobs,” Wright said. “I am not ashamed of anything we have done as a school board. You can only cut so much before you cut quality.”
Board member George Cox noted that four years ago a central part of the district’s pitch to voters was maintaining jobs. He said that remains the case currently, with as many as 40-60 jobs potentially on the line.
“There are still going to be jobs lost but we are going to tray to save every job we can,” Cox said. “If the voters don’t pass this, the school district will suffer.”