Note: a Q&A on the tax referendum, by Andy Dance, is posted here.
Dear Flagler County Voters:
I spent the past few weeks talking to residents about the half mill referendum. It is during these one-on-one discussions that I learn the most about the true perception of the school district in the community. It is apparent from these discussions and many of the comments I read online, that there are strong feelings working against the district due to the “need” for a special election and the cost of the special election. I knew this would be a tough sell from the beginning, and I fully understand the sentiment. However, I want the public to decide based on factual information. There is a lot of misinformation circulating in the community, and I want to take a moment to add some clarity.
You know my stance on this issue. It has been written about it and it is public record as part of the board meeting minutes. In my opinion, if we needed the money to protect critical services, the extension was a more reasonable request, and my vote was against the additional tax, not against a continuation.
Please know that the Board is extremely thankful for the prior support for education in this County, as evident by the extension of the .25 Mill two years ago and the extension of the ½ Penny sales tax this past election. Flagler County has a proud history of supporting education. My fear was that the goodwill and trust that was extended to us by the voters would evaporate quickly by asking for additional funds in a special election and a tax increase to boot. I hope that we can look past the negativity surrounding the special election process, and look to the needs of the District that are real and immediate.
So yes, the Board voted to proceed with the half mill referendum (an extension of the existing .25 levy and a new .25 levy). That board vote is in the past, and we move on. We now have two options…voting for the half mill or voting against the half mill. Based on these options, I will vote for the half mill, and I ask those that are on the fence or are leaning “no” to reconsider.
I realize no matter what, some are firm in their opinions, and I respect that. I feel it is my responsibility as a board member to lay out the facts and answer your questions, and my hope is that I will have adequately made a case for the half mill so that you will also vote in the affirmative.
I will choose to keep this explanation positive. The positive accomplishments of the District and our students speak volumes. These positive accomplishments have occurred in spite of year after year revenue reductions and accompanying spending cuts. Every year that I have been on the board, we’ve experienced reduced revenues due to the recession. In response, we have reduced expenses across all areas, just like you have done in your household. The one aspect of the recession that has been positive has been the mandate to evaluate all programs, positions and expenditures for waste and their impact on student performance. Many “hard choices” have been made to get to where we are. We have to balance our budget annually, as we are required to balance it every year by law.
How have we been able to accomplish positive results in an atmosphere of continued reductions in education spending and in a community that has had the highest unemployment in the state? I believe it is thanks to the support of our community. In spite of our economic struggles, Flagler County supports its schools and demands the best from its school leadership. In spite of our challenges, our schools have been performing at a high standard.
A recent renewal of our AdvancED accreditation provided insight into the many positives that are going on in Flagler Schools. Flaglerlive.com recently wrote about this renewal, stating…“Griffin (George Griffin, the Chair of the accreditation team) said he expected to hear excuses of why things were not done anymore, in light of budget cuts. He didn’t hear such excuses. Rather, every dollar was put to the benefit of students in the form of reading teachers, electives, art and music education and various types of academic coaches, all of which have been cut in many other districts. “I have enough comparisons to know when I say these things, I don’t make them up,” Griffin said. It was warming to hear an independent education expert acknowledge that we were doing everything we could to spare the classroom, and find other ways to trim the budget.
Recently, the district also received good news when a national news magazine, US News & World Report, revealed that our two high schools were the only area high schools to be ranked by the magazine for educational excellence. Matanzas High school was ranked in the top 7 percent of schools nationally and Flagler Palm Coast was ranked in the top 11 percent. Flaglerlive.com reported on this achievement as well. Both schools earned “Silver Medal” recognition; an honor reserved for only schools in the top 2,290 (11 percent) in the nation.
The District is on the right track. We are prioritizing properly and results are backing this up. We balance our budgets every year and we keep a satisfactory reserve balance. We have received outstanding audits and we are transparent with our financials. We have a dedicated “transparency” page on the website to back this up, with a prominent link on the home page.
This referendum discussion should be about continuing the progress we have made as a District. It should be about whether existing programs are worth continuing and the items that are being presented on the referendum are important enough to be funded by the added .25 Mill for the next school year. The District has been clear with these priorities since the referendum language was adopted by the board. If the ½ Mill is approved, we will:
- Add 45 minutes back to the school day
- Bring back SRO’s to the elementary schools, as they were before the recession hit.
- Enhance the security of our physical school campuses
- Provide additional mental health services for students
- Protect the arts in education
Voting for this referendum and for the 45 minutes of added instructional time is critical for our students as they face the rigor of the new Common Core standards that will be implemented in 2015. If we are to continue to outperform our demographics, this extra instructional time is crucial and sorely needed.
An important consideration for the passing the referendum is the additional flexibility these funds give the district. Without the additional funds, the District will be removing another 1.7 million dollars from our reserve fund, and by the end of next year, our reserves will be at 5% (the bottom of our Board “safe” range). This is not a sustainable path and gives us no wiggle room to accommodate unforeseen challenges down the road. Programs and services that we were able to save this year will not be as lucky next year.
The additional funds allow us the time to see if the current 8 month trend in reduced enrollment is a temporary adjustment or a long term problem. Currently, the loss of enrollment adds pressure for the Board to consider school closures. With the disruption to families, staff and the community that accompanies a school closure, we need to make sure we get this right. If the enrollment trend stops and becomes just a short term drop, approval of the referendum allows us a little more time to see if enrollment will stabilize and allow student population to naturally increase again as the economy continues to improve.
In conclusion, my hope is that the community will support the school district by approving this temporary four year property tax levy to protect and enhance education for all our students. Approval will protect current programs and educational priorities that are proving successful and leading to academic progress in our schools. Approval will add 45 minutes of instructional time back to the middle and high schools, adding School Resource Officers at all elementary schools and increasing school safety infrastructure at all school campuses. In my opinion, failure to pass this referendum could negatively impact education in Flagler County for the next few years, even beyond the four years of revenue that we would not collect the levy. It will take us many years to recapture the momentum we currently have. Pass this referendum on June 7th and continue the current positive momentum of student success in Flagler County. The community will reap the rewards for continued educational excellence from our public school system.
Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.