Four more years.
That is what Gulf District School will ask voters when they return to the polls March 5 to renew or extend the additional mil operating levy that has been in place the past four.
The Gulf County School Board unanimously voted to conduct the balloting during a one-day election March 5, instead of the mail out ballot that was used four years ago when voters first approved the additional operating levy.
The difference was cost and timeliness.
A mailed ballot, newly-installed Supervisor of Elections John Hanlon said, would cost more than $2 per voter or roughly $20,000 to mail ballots to all registered voters in the county.
The total cost of an election conducted by mail would be roughly $25,000, Hanlon said.
However, conducting the election on a single day would cut that price to $14,500, Hanlon said.
“We would not have to hold early voting for this kind of election and that would dramatically reduce the costs,” Hanlon said. “We would still have absentee ballots available for anyone who wishes to vote that way, but we would not early voting.”
On March 5, all polling places in all county precincts would be open the typical hours for election day, 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. ET or 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. CT.
Voting by mail would also require Hanlon to submit a plan to the state Division of Elections for approval, which would likely push the date back at least two weeks.
“We don’t need to spend any more than we have to and we want to know what we are dealing with as quick as we can,” said board member John Wright.
If voters do not approve the extension of the mil operating levy, Wright said, the results could be “ugly” and the board will need as much lead time before budget crafting for the coming fiscal year as possible.
What the district is asking is for voters to approve extending the additional mil operating levy for four years in order to stave off drastic reductions.
“This is a renewal tax, it is not the creation of a new tax,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton. “We have cut funding for the past four years but maintained standards. For us to continue the integrity of the product we are providing for the good of Gulf County we need this funding.”
The district is facing a shortfall of roughly $500,000 even without the additional funding. There will be cuts, to jobs or programs. However, take away the additional mil levy, currently worth about $1.3 million, and the budget deficit would be $1.8 million, Norton said.
“Even if this (levy) passes we will still be short dollars,” said board member George Cox. “It will be easier to cut half a million dollars than it will be almost two million dollars.”
If the levy does not pass, that could mean as many as 50 jobs cut and would likely render the district out of compliance with state constitutional mandates on class size ratios.
Norton said it would be likely the district could not cut 50 jobs, more likely around 30, but said the cuts would then have to come from programs.
“We are not asking for anything but to maintain,” Norton said.
Wright said, “School won’t be like we have it now if this doesn’t pass. It will be ugly.”
Voters approved the additional operating levy four years ago, but the economic winds have whittled the worth of that mil nearly in half over the four years. What was once worth $2.2 million is now equal to $1.3 million.
Meanwhile, the School Board has maintained local capital improvement millage rates, which the board could levy itself, at the lowest level in the state.
Local capital improvement dollars may not be used for operating expenses, so the only method available to the district is to ask voters to extend the levy, which sunsets in the current fiscal year.
“The funding is desperately needed,” said board member Billy Quinn, Jr. “We hope the community will rally behind this.”
Board chair Linda Wood said the levy was not so much for the district or the schools.
“This is about those little heads that get on and off the school bus each day,” Wood said. “We need the people in place to make sure they get the education they need so that their world will be better than their parents’.”