County Commissioners Suggest Reducing the Already Frail School Budget

Have you ever wondered how Lee County’s rapid growth and development is affecting the County’s school budget? Over the past 15 years, the School District of Lee County has grown from about 71,000 students to 93,000 – an increase of 22,000 students (31%). The student population is (and is projected to continue) growing at about 1,800 students a year, the equivalent of a new high school every year.

How is this growth being paid for?

Before “the Great Recession,” capital money needed to build new schools came from three primary sources: state capital funding, local ad valorem taxes, and local school impact fees. Substantial funding cuts by the State as well as the County Commissioners’ decision to slash school impact fees for the past 6 years (and counting), has resulted in a funding shortfall of $478 million just to meet past growth needs. Over the past 10 years, the School District lost over $200 million in capital money from the State and has lost $60 million as a result of the County Commission’s decision to only collect 45% of school impact fees.

To meet the immediate needs for housing this expanding student population, the School District had to borrow $431 million and is now paying $51 million a year in interest payments on that debt.

After the County Commissioners’ third (2013, 2015, and 2018) rejection of the School Board’s calls for collecting 100% of the school impact fees, the School Board decided to avoid more debt and seek a half-cent sales tax with a 10-year term through a referendum on the ballot in November 2018. The referendum was successful (61%) and this new revenue source for school capital improvements is now in place.

Contrary to recent statements by County Commissioners, the school’s sales tax does NOT replace the need for school impact fees.

These revenues are designated for a specific list of capital improvement projects.  School impact fees are based on the capital cost of the school facilities required to serve the school children who occupy new residences necessary to house our ever-expanding population. The impact fees can only be used to build school facilities in areas where student growth is occurring. Even when 100% of the fee is collected, it still only funds about 20% of the needed student facilities.

There is no double counting. The revenues provided by the school sales tax are treated as a credit in calculating the impact fee amount needed to pay for new student stations. Thus, the sales tax reduces the amount of impact fees that the new home buyer will pay.

In spite of these facts, the Board of County Commissioners did not recommend restoring impact fees at their Transportation Funding Workshop on April 16, 2019.

Instead, Commissioner Pendergrass suggested reducing the school’s impact fees even further below the current collection rate of 45%, “since they have the sales tax now.”

“This is ridiculous when you consider that one of the reasons the school sales tax was created was to make up for funding shortages that resulted from the County’s refusal to restore school impact fees to 100%,” said Jane Kuckel, a recently retired Lee County School Board member. “The Commissioners not only refuse to give the schools adequate funding, but now they’re suggesting reducing the already frail budget, threatening the primary economic driver in any community: quality schools.”

This isn’t the first time that the Commissioners have tried this trick of grabbing another entity’s money.

They’ve also sought to require some of Lee County’s municipalities to contribute to the costs of County road projects, essentially asking residents that reside in incorporated areas to pay twice for the road: once in their taxes to the County and again in their taxes to the city.  What’s the County’s reasoning?  The cities can afford to share this cost; they’ve got all the funds generated by their impact fees as a result of still collecting 100% impact fees. (While the County shirks its responsibility and only collects 45%.)

“How long will we see elected officials act in the best interest of developers than in the best interest of our children?” Kuckel asked. “When we don’t prioritize our children, we compromise our future.”

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