After a recent past that can only be described as rocky, the Broward School Board wants voters to approve an $800 million bond referendum this November.
I'm going to withhold final judgment for now, but let me clue in superintendent Robert Runcie and board members the reflexive response I'm hearing in the real world:
So the school district has its work cut out. The district says it needs the money for repairs, renovations, reconstruction projects and technology. The district also says it's trying to make up for what's been cut by the Legislature from the "capital outlay" portion of property tax collections in recent years.
But there's much for skeptical voters to distrust. Here are some of the biggest questions/concerns I have:
1. How much is the $800 million really going to cost? You know how when you finance a home or a car and you get a "Truth-in-Lending" sheet that shows you the final cost of something after interest payments? That's what I'd like to see here. Because the district is talking about getting $800 million through a bond issue, but the figure I haven't seen is what taxpayers will ultimately repay bondholders over the projected 30 year term. Will it be $1.5 billion, $2 billion, $2.5 billion or higher? The bond will be repaid through an assessment on property taxes. How many millions will be collected in the first year, and what are the projections through Year 30?
So far, all we've gotten is murky stuff. Runcie said the average homeowner would be assessed an extra $50 a year, which seems reasonable enough. In documents submitted to the school board, district officials say the assesment rate is "not expected to exceed an average 0.25 mills" over the life of the bonds, nor exceed a maximum of 0.35 mills. (A mill translates to $100 for every $100,000 of taxable value).
I don't know where they come from, but "not expected to exceed" isn't exactly a definitive figure. I want to see cold hard numbers.
2. This seems like a rush job. The deadline to get this on the November ballot is early June. So how come this was thrust upon the school board for approval only this past week? Runcie apparently has been going around to the business community and talking this up for the past year. It seems pretty arrogant to spring it on the general public so late, almost as if there's something about it that needs to be sneaked in. I wish this would have been brought up in January, not May. A good, solid plan could withstand prolonged scrutiny and get proper buy-in from everyone. Can this?
3. Is the district as efficient as it could be? When Runcie first arrived, he hinted at closing and consolidating some under-enrolled schools. But now that talk seems to have evaporated, probably because it would be a political hot potato. There are many schools at 50-to-60 percent capacity, partly because of the rapid growth of charter schools. In many cases, these underenrolled schools are in older eastern and central areas, and in predominantly minority areas. Closing schools could mean saving money (and generating money if the school district sells land), but it would also mean inconvenience and displacing existing students. Apparently, the district finds it easier to ask for more money from taxpayers than making tough business decisions.
4. The overall spending plan seems vague. The district has broken up the spending into three parts: 1) School remodeling/renovation/safety projects; 2) School replacement/new construction projects and 3) Technology Upgrades. Every existing public school is listed as a candidate for money under categories 1 and 3. There are roughly 55 schools listed as candidates for replacement/reconstruction.
Which projects will be a priority? Who'll get what? Will schools in poorer neighborhoods get a fair share? And with technology evolving so rapidly, why would the district use long-term bonds to pay for equipment that might be obsolete in 5 years? And if the district intends on leasing computers, is that really a capital expense?
Charter schools are not included at all, with Runcie saying state law precludes charters from getting this money. That won't make this an easy sell with charter school parents.
All in all, many questions. Will the school district have enough answers for skeptical voters? Especially after a recent past that's included scathing grand jury reports and perceptions of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence?
School budgets are complex. There are two parts collected from property tax: recurring expenses (for teacher salaries, etc.) and capital expenses (buildings, buses, equipment). In recent years, the Legislature has cut the maximum tax rate on capital expenses from 2 mills to 1.5 mills.
The school district will say it needs this bond money to make up for what the Legislature has cut.
But when it comes to trust, the Broward School board has undercut itself worse than anyone. Would you buy a used car from this lot, much less give $800 million?
Getting anything from voters this November is going to be one tough sell.
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