Clear-cut win for county schools

St. Johns County voters choose to support public school with sales tax hike


A struggle that began in June was finally resolved Tuesday as the residents of St. Johns County voted to increase the county’s sale tax by half a cent in order to fund the county’s public school district.

The sales tax, which will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2016, will immediately help to meet the needs of the school district — which have been steadily outstripping the available funding for years.

Of the voters who turned out on Tuesday, 21,314 vs. 13,737 favored the sales tax hike (about 61 percent). About 21.5 percent of registered voters participated. The tax will take effect for 10 years, and will bump the county sales tax to seven percent.

The new tax will generate an estimated $13 million in 2016 for the district, with an estimated additional $150 million over the decade-long life of the tax.

The issue of school funding shortfalls reached a head in June when the Florida Legislature decided to cut three million dollars in funding for the county’s schools.

“There’s been no appetite in Tallahassee to help us,” said Bev Slough, Chair of the St. Johns County School Board, in a public hearing in June. “[That] we were cut out underscores that we have no appeal to the legislature right now.”

A failed partnership

The county had wrestled with the idea of increasing its sales tax through much of 2015, but for the first half of the year, the sales tax increase was meant to make up for shortfalls in long term capital funding. The county’s schools did not enter the picture until June.

Any increase in sales tax must go to ballot, and in the spring, the Board of County Commissioners held public hearings to discuss the potential one-cent sales tax hike and get input from county residents. On June 2, Commissioner Bill McClure proposed that were the sales-tax issue to go to ballot, half of the funds raised could go to the county schools. The school board voted unanimously to be included.

Just two weeks later, McClure was the swing vote in a split commission that voted not to allow the sales tax to go to ballot.

After presenting its case to the public and the commission, the St. Johns County School Board was then left to pursue funding without of the help of the commission.

Student body growing pains

In June, St. Johns County School Superintendent Joseph Joyner outlined in stark terms the type of budget shortfalls the county schools face. Money that should be going towards the construction of the projected 20 new schools that the county will need over the next decade, Joyner said, is instead going to the rental of portable classrooms. The county has at least 7,000 students currently learning in these classrooms, dubbed “relocatables” and “villas,” which equals roughly nine full schools.

“I have two young children in the school system and already [Valley Ridge Academy] has 20 portables,” said Ponte Vedra parent Elaine M. Vulcano-Parker. The brand-new school in Nocatee began its second year in August, but has had students in portable classrooms since its first day of class. “We moved to St. Johns County because of the great education and we’re worried that this will start impacting that great education,” Vulcano-Parker said.

The school board heard from many parents with the same concerns as Vulcano-Parker.

“It’s like we’re victims of our success,” said School Board Vice Chair Patrick Canan in June. Canan pointed to the fact that the county has had the top schools in the state for seven years running. “It’s touted by every realtor and every developer in the county – but the school district gets left holding the bag.”

A need recognized

After Commissioner McClure voted down an updated ordinance that would have included the schools in June, he remained optimistic in the face of public outcry.
“I think people are going to walk away from here going ‘the school has a capital need,’” McClure said.

Though some in the public voiced disappointment, McClure was proved correct as the tax increase passed this week.