Local business community to restart half-cent sales tax initiative for schools

In partnership with local chambers of commerce, a group of businessmen and women are working to revive a 10-year half-cent sales tax initiative to benefit Okaloosa County schools, says local attorney and initiative supporter Michelle Anchors.


“The business community recognizes and values the importance of a good education to a strong economy,” Anchors, of the AnchorsGordon law firm in Fort Walton Beach, said Wednesday. “This isn’t the School Board coming to us. It’s us going to the public and saying we need you to lock elbows with us to give strong, secure facilities to our children.”


The group of business people aim to get the half-penny tax question placed on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.


RELATED: Okaloosa’s schools are some of the oldest in Florida


If approved by a majority of voters, the tax would generate an estimated $20 million annually to benefit the School District’s capital needs, such as repairs to school roofs, the replacement of portable classrooms with brick-and-mortar ones, and upgrades to the district’s bus fleet.


None of the money would be used for operational expenses, Anchors said.


Three years ago, a half-cent sales tax initiative started by Anchors and other business leaders never made it to the ballot because of various investigations of the School District when it was led by former Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.


RELATED (2017): Investigations squash OCSD half-cent sales tax referendum


During the scandal, reports surfaced of special needs children being inappropriately treated at two schools, a district employee keeping his job despite multiple sexual harassment claims and a school resource officer displaying “wanton indifference” in assisting and reporting child abuse investigations.


But now, it’s time to look forward, Anchors said Wednesday.


“Approving the half-cent sales tax is a way for the public, not the politicians, to influence our schools,” she said. “We can keep looking back and cussing the sins of the past, but that’s not fixing a leaky roof or getting kids out of flimsy portables. This is our time to face the future and to fund it.


RELATED: Okaloosa school tax proposal killed before vote


“The citizens of Okaloosa County have a reputation for supporting good causes, even limited taxes, when they are deserving, and there is nothing more deserving right now than making our schools safe and strong.”


In November 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved the county’s 10-year half-cent sales tax referendum. Revenue from that tax is spent on public safety, transportation and stormwater system capital improvements in the county and its municipalities.


Okaloosa’s tax increased the overall sales tax in the county to 6.5%, or 65 cents per $10 purchase.


For the School District, state funding reductions mean officials are forced to make up the difference, Anchors said.


“If we don’t take the initiative to make it up, we will continue to operate significantly underfunded, and that shows up in the conditions of the facilities, equipment and technology,” she said. “To continue to allow them to degrade is a disservice to our kids and our teachers. Sixty-one percent of our schools in Okaloosa County are over half a century old,” such as 82-year-old Edge Elementary School in Niceville.


Anchors recalled how last fall Wright Elementary School, which was built in 1960, had to be closed on a Monday after a corroded pipe burst over the weekend and flooded classrooms.


“That was very alarming,” she said. “Not being able to afford upgrades for maintenance and repairs causes disruptions to teaching and learning.”


Anchors plans to briefly introduce the sales tax initiative at Monday’s School Board meeting. It starts at 6 p.m. at the School District’s Central Administrative Complex in Niceville.


And at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Anchors and other supporters of the initiative plan to officially kick it off during a presentation in the cafeteria at Edwins Elementary School in Fort Walton Beach.


During that event, the supporters will seek more people to join their cause and solicit donations for the sales tax campaign. A tour of the school will follow the presentation.


Linda Evanchyk, who was elected to the School Board in August 2018, said the board is always interested in getting more revenue because the district’s infrastructure is in a dire situation.


“The only way to improve the revenue is through a sales tax referendum,” Evanchyk said.


In support of the proposed referendum, each of the schools would perform an infrastructure assessment and would name their top concerns, she said.


“From what I’m hearing, every school needs something,” Evanchyk said. “That’s over 40 structures. I think this (sales tax initiative) is the fairest way to do it. It puts the burden not just on the citizens (who live in Okaloosa County), but on the people who come here.”