Articulate October 2018

Improving Our Schools is Crucial for Economic Survival

Written By: Brian Scarborough

In November, Alachua County voters will be asked to approve a half-cent sales tax that will be used solely for infrastructure improvements in Alachua County public schools.

I want to present the case to the business community, to which taxation generally is anathema, for why it is crucial for our economic survival that this initiative pass.

I’m a product of our public school system (Terwilliger, Fort Clarke and Buchholz) as well as a father to seventh- and fifth-grade daughters. I’ve also spent well over 100 hours in the last year – first as chair of the Chamber’s I3 Initiative and now as chair of the Yes for Alachua Schools campaign – working on a solution to improve the dire infrastructure in our public schools.

I’m both personally biased and inextricably invested. My goal, however, is not to make a sentimental plea based on my feelings and experiences, but rather to deliver an emotionally neutral argument for this initiative that will make sense to the most hardened capitalist number-cruncher.

I’ll start with why these funds are necessary. The state has reduced funding for public schools’ infrastructure in Alachua County alone by $168 million over the last 10 years. That is not meant as a political statement, but rather as a statement of fact as to the top-line revenue of the school district.

As a result, routine maintenance for roofs, AC systems, plumbing, electrical, flooring and painting have been and will be – barring passage of this initiative – deferred.

Just like your home or commercial building, eventually the cost of deferred maintenance compounds and becomes no longer optional.

Furthermore, due to a lack of funds, we continue to place the increasing number of students enrolling in our schools in portable classrooms because we cannot build permanent class space or expand or modernize existing space.

Portable classrooms are more expensive than permanent classrooms in the long run. It costs roughly $20,000 just to move one (including hooking up utilities and fire alarms, pouring concrete for sidewalks, prepping the site and installing ramps and stairs), not to mention the higher cost of energy and their durability.

Improvements to school safety measures are largely impossible because, well, they cost money.

I’ve visited a number of our local schools, beyond the ones my kids attend, and here’s what I’ve seen: classrooms that rely on sandbags to keep out rising water from routine rainstorms; cafeterias that are crowded and must begin lunch service prior to 10 a.m.; roofs that leak; auditoriums and classrooms that are not served by working air conditioners; science labs that are both too small and ill-equipped with sinks and emergency eye wash stations that have not been functional for years.

This initiative will benefit every single school in Alachua County.

If any business is faced with a top-line revenue crisis, the options are to either increase revenue or cut expenses. Unlike a business, public schools do not have the options of raising prices, closing branch offices or cutting staff.

From a business perspective, our only option to address the growing backlog of infrastructure needs and an increasing student population is to find an external revenue source, such as tax revenue. The Florida Legislature has already capped (and reduced) what schools can collect in terms of property taxes. Our only option is a sales tax.

From a competitive standpoint, Alachua County is presently charging a 6.5 percent sales tax, while all of the surrounding counties are at 7 percent. Twenty counties statewide have already passed a local option sales tax to help address their schools’ infrastructure needs.

It is important to consider that an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the sales tax revenue comes from people who reside outside of Alachua County, which makes a sales tax far more beneficial to local residents than a property tax.

Any single transaction will be capped at $5,000, meaning that the additional cost of this tax for any one purchase is $25. The tax will not be levied on food, medicine or any other exempted items.

The annual impact on the average household in Alachua County is projected to be $5 per month.

There also is the issue of job creation. The half-cent sales tax will be levied for 12 years, raising a projected $22 million annually. These funds will be directly invested into our community as contractors will be required to perform the improvements to our schools, thereby creating hundreds of jobs.

It is altogether reasonable, therefore, to assert that many of your businesses will recoup the additional cost presented by this tax, if not profit from its passage, as those employees consume the services and goods you provide.

Finally, the business community rightfully spends a great deal of time and investment on economic development. If we’re to lure the top talent and companies to our community, not to mention retain the individuals and companies that are already here, providing access to top-tier schools is a major factor that they consider.

This is a significant reason that our initiative enjoys the endorsements of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Gainesville-Alachua County Association of Realtors and the Builders Association of North Central Florida.

I can’t emphasize enough that there is no Plan B should this initiative fail. There is no reasonable expectation that Tallahassee will reverse its course regarding public school funding.The school board’s bonding capacity is limited, at best, and there is no legal option to increase funding by property taxes.

We must succeed on this initiative in November. The future of this community depends on our investment in our future employees, business owners, law enforcement officers and health care staff.

To fail in the short term is to ensure the long-term degradation of this community. Please vote “yes” on this initiative and encourage your employees, family, neighbors and friends to do the same.

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