OCPS may try to renew half cent tax in 2014
Come June, the Orange County School Board will decide whether or not to ask voters in 2014 to OK an extension to the half-penny sales tax that would bring $2 billion in construction work to the area.
The existing half-penny sales tax expires in 2015, and the school board has identified $3 billion worth of capital projects, with $1 billion of it already funded. The list includes $1.28 billion in renovations and replacements, $880 million in major maintenance projects like roofs and air-conditioning systems, $80 million in technology upgrades and $760 million in new schools.
Mark Wylie, president and CEO of the Central Florida chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors, said ABC would advocate on behalf of the school board to pass the sales tax extension. After all, the size of OCPS’s construction program puts it in the same league with the theme parks.
“The public school system has a terrific impact on the economic development of the region,” Wylie said, noting that companies considering locations in Orlando want to know about the quality of the school system. “That ultimately affects the whole economy.”
So what are the odds that the board will vote to put the measure on the ballot? Pretty likely, given the scope of the needs identified.
“I think we will be having that conversation with the voters,” said Bill Sublette, chairman of the school board.
The question then becomes how to get voter approval. There are several areas OCPS plans to highlight with voters:
• The sales tax isn’t new — it’s a continuation of an existing tax.
• After the Sandy Hook shootings, schools now realize they need to better secure their facilities by designing schools that don’t have multiple entrances, for example.
• The digital infrastructure needs to be upgraded, such as adding Wi-Fi to schools and upgrading computers.
• Orange County Public Schools enrollment has grown by about 2,000 new students per year.
However, there also are challenges in getting voters to approve a half-penny sales tax extension:
• The original list of 130 projects wasn’t completed. Sublette said the big stumbling points were the rise in construction costs from 2003 to 2008, combined with a drop in sales tax revenue due to the recession.
• Orange County Public Schools’ facilities department lost its head of facilities after audits found loose oversight and overbilling. That job now is held by John Morris. “We got our house in order,” said Sublette.
Political consultant John Dowless said the next step for the board will be to do a poll to learn what voters think and how close the vote could be. Then the next big question would be whether there’s organized opposition to the half-penny sales tax, which could trigger a need for a more organized and funded campaign.
Dowless said one positive for the campaign is that school funding is an issue with wide voter appeal, and because the tax has a sunset provision, it’s more palatable.
Dick Batchelor, founder of Dick Batchelor Management Group Inc., said it cost $500,000 in 2002 for the half-penny campaign to get voters to approve the sales tax. Previous referendums had failed six times before that.
However, Batchelor said, The Tea Party movement might oppose it.