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Guest Commentary: Stand up for community’s best interest: Vote yes on half penny sales tax

October 10, 2018
By Dr. Jane E. Kuckel , Lehigh Acres Citizen

The upcoming Nov. 6 election ballot includes an item that will impact all of Lee County for years, maybe decades to come.

The School District of Lee County is projected to grow between 1,500 to 2,000 students per year over the next ten years. That is the equivalent of one new high school each year. The average statewide cost of a new high school is $65-plus million.

While the school district's student population has grown exponentially, the money to build and maintain schools has declined exponentially, from $318 million in 2007 to $118 million last year. Certainly, $118 million sounds like a lot of money, but, in addition to building new schools, the district's Capital Fund must also pay for:

- Safety and security improvements - our first priority

- Everyday maintenance and repair for 110 school facilities

- Purchase and maintenance of 700-plus bus fleet

- Technology purchases and upgrades

- Debt retirement

Last year, the district spent $52 million in "mortgage" payments for previous schools, which had to be built with borrowed money due to inadequate capital funding. That's $52 million of taxpayer dollars that went to pay back loans rather than to our students.

We have nearly $80 million in much-needed building repairs and replacements, like HVAC systems and roofs, and we do not have the money to replace them.

In addition, we need six new schools, just to keep up with previous growth. Right now, we have 177 trailers serving as makeshift classrooms for students in high-growth areas across the district. Not only are trailers inferior classroom facilities, they are an eyesore to the community and a safety and security risk. During severe weather conditions, students must be evacuated.

We are not in this position because we have mismanaged money. We are not in this position because we have spent unwisely. We are in this position simply because our growth is outpacing our funding.

The urgency is now.

The quality of schools is the biggest economic driver in any community.

- It impacts the ability to attract high wage businesses to Lee County.

- It impacts the district's ability to educate students so that we can provide highly skilled employees to our local employers.

- It impacts your property values.

There are only five other Florida counties that are growing, like we are, yet we are the only one that does not have a surtax.

When passed, the half-penny investment may only be used for capital expenditures - safety and security, new construction, maintenance, and technology. None of these designated monies may be used for salaries or daily operations.

This tax lasts only ten years and, built into the language of the referendum, is an independent community oversight committee, which will review every expenditure for compliance and report back to taxpayers on a quarterly basis.

The time has come to take action.

We can no longer allow others to limit the education opportunities and quality of life in Lee County.

I urge everyone stand up for what is best for our community and to vote yes on the half penny sales tax.

Not only do our students deserve the best possible education, but the community deserves the strongest economy possible and the most employable workforce - and that comes with quality education.

Dr. Jane E. Kuckel holds the at-large District 6 seat on the Lee County School Board.



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