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PAC opposes proposed sales tax for Okaloosa schools

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

The group that has recently been posting signs stating “No School Tax, Accountability First” around Okaloosa County “is not a bunch of arch-conservative, anti-tax zealots,” says Pat Ryan.

The retired Air Force reservist and 29-year local resident chairs the political action committee called YES For Okaloosa Schools. The group of about 20 people includes business owners and managers, parents and retired teachers.

More:PHOTOS: Half-cent sales tax initiative announced at Edwins Elementary

“What we are about is good government and transparency,” Ryan said Thursday. “The evidence is (county School District officials) are not spending tax dollars wisely.”

Ryan’s group has created the www.yesforokaloosaschools.com and truth4ok.com websites that contain many of its concerns. It takes issue with various points made by the “School Cents Makes Sense” PAC that backs a proposed 10-year half-cent sales tax that would benefit schools.

Pat Ryan, chairman of an Okaloosa County Political Committee called "YES For Okaloosa Schools," puts up some "No School Tax" signs on Racetrack Road on Thursday.

If a majority of voters approve the sales tax referendum Nov. 3, the tax would generate an estimated $256 million in revenue over its lifespan. The School District has 42 schools and a total of about $500 million in project needs.

More:Okaloosa voters to decide School District sales tax

With voter approval, the tax would take effect Jan. 1 and generate money to pay for projects such as repairs to school roofs, the replacement of portable classrooms with brick-and-mortar classrooms, HVAC unit replacements, technology improvements and upgrades to the district’s bus fleet, which is the oldest in Florida.

The district’s full list of project needs, based on evaluations of schools and discussions with principals, parents and teachers, is found at www.schoolcentsmakessense.com/#/.

Among other concerns, members of the School Cents Makes Sense group say 75% of the existing schools are more than 45 years old and many of them are deteriorating. They also say that the district’s 167 portables are not very storm-hardy and many of them have deficiencies, and that Florida ranks 43rd in the nation in per-pupil spending.

More:Sales-tax campaign for schools kicks off

“The last time we made an investment in the schools was 1995,” when voters approved a three-year, 1 cent sales tax, local businessman and sales-tax campaign leader Vince Mayfield recently told the Northwest Florida Daily News.

In an Oct. 4 Twitter post, OCSD Superintendent Marcus Chambers said the district is one of only two in Florida with a student enrollment of more than 10,000 that does not have a half-cent sales tax, millage increase or impact fee.

A lone "Vote No on School Tax" sign is tucked into a group of "Vote Yes" signs on Sunset Lane.

The Ryan-led YES For Okaloosa Schools group, however, has two main concerns about the possible new tax.

“No. 1, we don’t think the public’s really getting the full story,” Ryan said. “We think a lot of the information that’s been coming out in support of the tax increase is misleading or inaccurate. Our second concern is, we are for good, strong schools with good infrastructure. However, this proposed tax increase at this point in time will really result in being a little more than a taxpayer-funded Band-Aid which is trying to dress up a bunch of ancient schools — many obsolete schools which really need to be replaced.

“The district doesn’t appear to us to be taking a comprehensive approach and thinking long-term on how to get good school infrastructure for decades to come.”

More:Call goes out for appointed superintendent

While the School Cents Makes Sense group says 56% percent of the revenue from the proposed tax would come from tourist dollars, the YES for Okaloosa Schools group says that percentage might apply seasonally, but not year-round.

According to the group chaired by Ryan, the School District at the end of 2021 will no longer have to pay $6 million annually to service its debt, and $7 million worth of district security upgrades will be completed at the end of 2023.

Those dollars represent examples of funding that could be used to help shore up deteriorating schools and address other needs, Ryan said.

He also took issue with the county School Board’s approval in 2013 of an information technology outsourcing contract for a firm whose estimated monthly cost for services was more than $85,000 higher than a competing bidder’s.

A district committee that recommended the higher-cost firm ranked it higher than the other company in six categories, including overall capability to provide the services, financial stability and the ability to provide experienced personnel.

While the truth4ok.com website states the district already receives $31 million annually from county property taxes for capital projects, Mayfield recently said that amount mirrors the total annual property tax revenue for the Walton County School District, which has about 19,000 fewer students than the OCSD.

On another note, the PAC led by Ryan is concerned that the OCSD wants to spend millions of taxpayer funds on repairs to old schools when it should be conducting a cost-benefit analysis to determine which schools should be demolished and replaced.

Overall, district officials probably cannot pay for all needed repairs with its current funding sources, “but they can certainly pay for some of it,” Ryan said.