MILTON — The Santa Rosa County School District budget for the upcoming school year will include no impact fees to help build new schools in one of the fastest growing counties in Florida.
Instead, the Santa Rosa County School District must continue to rely on the half-cent sales tax that took effect Oct. 1, 1998 for the same purpose — to help build schools amid declining state dollars.
Santa Rosa has benefited from $131.1 million total in half-cent sales tax revenue that voters approved overwhelmingly in 1997, 2007 and 2017 to build new schools. During the first 10 years, the Santa Rosa County school system built seven new schools with the help of the sales tax.
Fittingly, Bennett C. Russell Elementary, named after the late superintendent, was the last new school to go up in 2007.
In the last 10 years since then not one new school has broken ground, despite the half-cent generating an extra $74 million. That doesn’t include the $6.7 million collected to date for fiscal year 2018-2019.
Santa Rosa County Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick has served during the dry spell. Despite schools bursting with students, the district has put the half-cent revenue instead towards playground equipment, sports facilities, re-roofing and a variety of other improvements. First elected in 2008, Wyrosdick announced earlier this year that he would not seek a fourth term in 2020.
“We have maximized use of the half-cent sales tax,” Wrysodick told his school board during an April 25 presentation about impact fees. “The half-cent sales tax, as useful as it is, is not adequate to cover our needs. We’ve spent it wisely.”
Joey Harrell, the school system’s assistant superintendent of administrative services, oversees construction. He said the half-cent sales tax has become critical to the school district. Harrell said the sales tax and the 1.4 mills in local ad valorem taxes means local taxpayers' money funds 98% of school construction. Harrell said the state has reduced or eliminated funding to build and maintain schools.
“It’s not all been spent on new classrooms. That’s true,” Harrell said of Santa Rosa's half-cent sales tax. “Those funds have been used in a myriad of ways. Those dollars have been spent 100% in accordance with the referendum.”
Even Susan McCole, the Santa Rosa County school system assistant superintendent for finance who plans the annual budget, agreed with Wrysodick and Harrell. The superintendent had McCole talk to the Daily News about its 9 a.m. Tuesday, July 23 preliminary budget meeting and sales tax expenditures.
McCole said annual audits by independent CPA firms confirm the school system has properly spent the half-cent sales tax. She explained that the Florida Department of Education decides whether Santa Rosa County can build a new school.
“We have confidence in what we’ve spent money on,” McCole said, adding that money spent on young women’s batting cages, tennis courts and other athletic facilities “may not seem necessary.” However, McCole said it ensures the school district complies with Title IX, a federal law requiring equity between women’s and men’s sports.
During a joint meeting May 15 Santa Rosa County commissioners rejected putting the school board’s impact fee before voters to help pay for new schools, especially since it already collects the sales tax. The county commission plans its own special election Oct. 8, 2019, asking voters to increase its sales tax by another half-cent to a penny.
The impact fee request brought out county residents, who have questioned for years how the school district has spent taxpayers’ hard earned money.
One of those detractors is Pace resident Edwin Henry, who has built thousands of homes in the county. He pointed out that ever since the school district first received half cent sales tax funds in 1998, the number of Santa Rosa County schools near or above capacity has continued to increase.
“So my point is that they are not focused on the correct priorities, and have not been for a long time,” Henry said. “Those other things are nice but it doesn’t seem like they should take priority over new schools. They’ve known it all along.”
Today, 19 of 36 schools in Santa Rosa are above 90 percent capacity. In the south end of the county between Navarre and Gulf Breeze, 8 of 11 schools have reached more than 90% capacity. Meanwhile, both Oriole Beach Elementary, with 896 students, and Holley-Navarre Middle School, with 995 students, are at 105.9% and 100% utilization, respectively. In the Pace area, both S.S. Dixon Primary School (820 students) and Sims Middle School (1,062 students) are at 104.9% and 105.7% capacity, respectively.
Florida TaxWatch CEO and President Dominic Calabro said Santa Rosa County school leaders have some “explaining to do.” He has led the statewide nonprofit based in Tallahassee that has regularly analyzed state and local government spending for 40 years.
“If they’re not building new schools, maybe they don’t need the money,” Calabro said.
However, the impact fee may be attempted again in the future by the school district, despite many economic and business leaders who argue the one-time fee on newly built homes most affects those who can least afford it, such as teachers, police officers, firefighters, and others.
Carol Boston said the impact fee will be revisited “at some point in time” because of the school systems’ need for at least five new schools in the next 10 years. Boston admitted being excited about watching land clearing recently on the $30 million-plus K-8 Elkhart school in the Navarre area. The first school built in Santa Rosa since Russell Elementary, it will alleviate student crowding at West Navarre Primary and Intermediate schools and Woodlawn Beach Middle School.
Additionally, district officials plan to seek a builder for another K-8 school in the Pace area before the end of the year, and is near completion of negotiations with Gulf Breeze for 45 acres in Tiger Point.
“We will continue to be fiscally responsible and do the best we can with what the legislature shares with us,” Boston said. “It’s exciting to see (Elkhart) come to fruition.”