County voters will head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to continue a one mil additional operating levy for the public schools.
Polls will be open 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. ET or 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. CT. All polling precincts will be open for this county-wide ballot.
Absentee ballots are due at the Supervisor of Elections Office by 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday, said Supervisor of Elections John Hanlon.
The lone item is a question – whether voters approve extending for another four years the one mil additional operating levy which has been in place the past four years.
Voters are asked to cast a simple “yes” or “no” response.
The district is seeking the continuation of the additional operating mil – Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton has said during informational meetings on both ends of the county the past several weeks “this is not a new tax” – based on arithmetic.
The district already faces a budget shortfall of at least $500,000 and Norton has said that regardless of the results on Tuesday there will be cuts, though whether those cuts are to programs, personnel or a combination has not yet been revealed.
What the district is hoping is to avoid a budget shortfall of at least $1.8 million – an additional mil is currently worth roughly $1.3 million – if the levy does not pass, which could result in drastic cuts across the board.
A mil is equal to $1 per every $1,000 in appraised personal taxable property.
The value of that mil, which has dropped from $2.2 million four years ago when voters first approved the additional operating levy, remembers one side of a double-edged sword for the district.
The district is considered property rich under Florida’s public school funding formula, Norton said, and therefore local taxpayers are asked to pay more for schools than they did, say, 10 years ago, from roughly 50 percent of the bill to nearly 80 percent of the bill.
Local taxpayers foot more of the tab for public schools than many other districts, particularly area rural counties, even though property values have eroded the past four years.
The other edge of the blade for the district is declining enrollment. The district has lost nearly 400 students in the past decade – each student carries a set per-pupil funding under the state’s funding formula.
The district is also left with few options to raise operating funds.
The lone component of school funding over which the Gulf County School Board has any sway is Local Capital Improvement which, Norton and board chair Linda Wood have said repeatedly, would allow the district to raise that component and buy sparkling new school buses, but LCI funding may not be used for operating purposes.
The Florida Legislature each year determines the discretionary funding and the local required taxes each spring.
The district’s only option to raise operating funds is the additional operating levy.
Norton said passing the levy is key to maintaining the standards of a district that has been an honor roll district, under the state’s grading formula, and a high-performing district the past five consecutive years.
“We have cut funding for the past four years but maintained standards,” he said. “For us to continue the integrity of the product we are providing for the good of Gulf County we need this funding.
“We are not asking for anything but to maintain.”
If the levy does not pass, the district could have to shed as many as 50 jobs, 20 percent of its workforce, though how the cuts would come about and the district still meet constitutional mandates on class size parent/teacher ratios is an unknown.
Norton said that cuts would likely occur to sports and other extracurricular activities, vocational and academic programs.
“School won’t be like we have it now if this doesn’t pass. It will be ugly,” said School Board member John Wright.
Norton and the board note the trimming that has taken place over the past four years, part of promises made when seeking the additional operating mil originally.
The district has consolidated middle and high schools, cut jobs, eliminated sports teams, reduced the district travel budget and eliminated bus routes while requiring that athletic coaches become certified bus drivers to reduce expenses.
The district budget, in turn, has fallen nearly $3 million in the past five years while the number of public school employees has fallen by nearly 80 people over the same span.
In additional, the School Board has maintained the lowest LCI millage rate in the state – 1.1 mils below what is allowed by the state – and contributed a portion of member salaries to the district.
The district also retired several years early the half cent sales tax for Port St. Joe Elementary School.
“We have done what we promised four years ago,” Wright said.
The district is also behind the eight-ball when it comes to consideration of consolidating the two community school systems it operates 22 miles apart.
Even if consolidation was desired, state funding for such construction is non-existent due to budget cuts and the district would be unable to foot the cost of a new school itself.
“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’.”