The Flagler County Commission Monday evening approved on a 4-0 vote placing a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot to renew for the third time the school district’s half-penny sales surtax.
The vote was not a surprise, though it reflects a shift from Commissioner Joe Mullins, who earlier this month was signaling opposition to the tax (he’s running for re-election). The school district and others quickly schooled him, and he reversed course.
The tax is projected to raise $81 million in addition to money the district receives from the state or other sources. It would be spent on technology, building on the district’s initiative that, thanks to the tax revenue over the past 10 years, placed a computer or a tablet in the hands of every student. It would also pay for school safety upgrades, classroom renovations, energy-efficiency and school bus purchases.
“I think this is really important, really important that we get this done,” Commissioner Greg Hansen, who is also running for re-election, said. “I encourage you to do the best you can as far as as far as PR as far as getting the word out about how we need this. And I personally will help you. If you need me to speak or go anywhere, I will do that. This is important and we need to have this.”
Ten years ago, it was Andy Dance, then a school board member–and now a county commissioner–who almost single-handedly led the campaign for renewal. He spoke to civic groups, campaigned day after day at street corners and beat the drums for renewal at school board meetings at a time when it wasn’t at all obvious that a tax renewal would carry: the anti-tax tea party was at its apogee, in Flagler especially. Its Trump-inspired progeny has not been friendlier to taxes.
The district must also worry about an ongoing demographic shift in Flagler that has vastly increased the proportion of older voters without children in schools–older voters who tend to vote against taxes: Ten years ago, 19 percent of Flagler’s population was 18 or younger, while just 24 percent was 65 or over. By 2019, just 16.9 percent of the population was 18 or younger, while the 65-and-over proportion had grown sharply to 30.7 percent, an enormous shift for a relatively small county, demographically speaking.
The surtax was first enacted 20 years ago, when it helped build Belle Terre Elementary, kicked off the first student-computer initiatives (the ratio at the time was one computer for every three students), created a wireless networking environment and added safety measures.
In 2012, when the initiative was on the primary ballot, 64 percent of voters approved the surtax. In 2002, close to 70 percent of voters approved it. This year, state law requires such referendums to be on the general election, November ballot.
By law, the district had to get the County Commission’s approval to have the initiative placed in the November ballot. So school officials Monday evening submitted an elaborate presentation to the commission, including from staffers, school board members, students and the superintendent.
“Promises made, promises kept,” is how Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt put it, framing the renewal as the continuation of 20 years of successful initiatives, which she outlined. The district is putting a particular focus on safety plans ahead, in light of continuing mass shootings at school–even though, in fact, school shootings have declined in the last 20 years, not least because of gun-free school zone laws. For example, the district will complete the single-point-of-entry system on every campus, with lobbies funneling all entrants to each school, along with electronically-controlled door locks, real-time surveillance piped into the sheriff’s office, and so on.
“When we talk about instructional technology, it’s more than just the student one-to-one devices,” Teresa Phillips, an instructional technology coach in Flagler schools, said. She was referring to the shorthand terminology the district uses to describe the initiative that placed computers in every student’s hands. “It also includes those tools that the teachers have in the classroom to really help them take learning to the next level with their students and increase engagement with it. She described smart-classroom technology, learning spaces designed for student engagement and various other plans–enacted and yet to come.
How the School District Plans to Spend Revenue From the Sales Surtax
|District Wide Technology||Retrofit and upgrades to infrastructure, software, hardware and wiring to maximize system performance||$18,580,000|
|District Wide Instructional Technology||Technology upgrades to support a robust and seamless delivery of instruction||$24,505,000|
|District Wide Safety & Security||Physical building hardening and upgrades to software and hardware for surveillance and security systems||$8,365,000|
|District Wide Classroom Renovations||Smart classrooms, learning spaces and labs||$20,150,000|
|District Wide Energy Efficiency Renovations||Upgrades to electrical and H-VAC systems||$3,300,000|
|Bus Procurement and Maintenance||School bus purchase and/or maintenance||$2,700,000|
“If it does get passed, we plan on establishing a Citizens Advisory Council to oversee this to see what the money’s being spent on and that’d be reviewed quarterly,” School Board Chairman Trevor Tucker said. “That is our hope.”
The district’s presentation ensured that students’ voices would also be heard.
Zoey Estberg is a former student representative on the board and a 2019 graduate of Matanzas High School, entering her senior year at the University of Florida to complete a degree in mechanical engineering, with a minor in biomechanics. “My confidence in this ever advancing world of technology is largely due to the early exposure in which we students were fortunate enough to have here,” Estberg told the commission. “As a fifth grade student I was approached and asked to be a part of Flagler county’s first ever paperless pilot program. This was overwhelming at first. My teachers along with others from our county’s tech department guided me through this untraveled digital learning journey. Soon I was not only figuring out how to navigate fifth grade, but I was also completing and submitting all of my assignments completely paperless. All those who witnessed this method of teaching and learning both within and outside of Flagler County were inspired and eager to succeed in doing the same. Student attitudes towards work drastically improved, followed by overall grade point averages. I have never seen classrooms with students so eager to learn, and this would not have been possible without generous budget allocations for classroom technology access.”
Michael Young, a senior at Flagler Palm Coast High School who’s dually enrolled at Daytona State College, described his years with district-provided laptops, iPads, and digital classrooms that “helped shape me in ways that I am technologically literate.” He was also a recent intern at the district’s technology department. “Almost all assignments are provided through that website,” he said. “Without laptops given to me by the county. I wouldn’t be able to do such work as I do not have the funds to provide for myself.”
In a change from the previous revenue structure, revenue from the renewal will be proportionately shared with charter schools–publicly funded schools that are privately run, like Imagine School at Town center (currently the county’s only charter school). Lisa O’Grady, the long-time principal at Imagine, gave a nod to the change when she noted that “the students that have just spoken tonight here speak to what really had can happen with the dollars when the voters take action.”
“The problem we face is that it would be nice if all the citizens of Flagler County could have sat through this presentation and heard the students,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan said. “But that’s not the way it works. It’s hard to get the attention of people when you hear tax increase. So the ability to sell this to our citizens now falls on you guys, to make sure that this the presentation is made clear.”
“This is an extension of an existing tax,” Dance said. “There’s two different avenues of having to talk to the public about a tax increase versus the extension of an existing sales tax. So there’s really good people that are in charge of now getting this message out to the public. And that’s the next step for the district is, is getting that campaign going.”
“It’s very important to get that out to the citizens of Flagler County, to let them know what all this does,” Joe Mullins, who is chairing the commission, said, “having students that are now entering college or about to enter the workforce career. Flagler county’s got some of the greatest assets, the greatest kids and they’re our most important asset that we have.”
Mullins was ensuring that his change of tune was being heard. Only weeks ago he was speaking a different language. “There is a lot of concern about a tax during times like this. I am not a fan of any taxes and feel strongly we can cut back expenses,” he wrote in an email on June 1, responding to an invitation by the school district’s Patty Bott to a meeting about school concurrency (meaning the coordination of development and school-building capacity). Mullins has opposed concurrency.
That immediately raised concern in the district about whether Mullins, who is running for re-election, would oppose the district’s surtax in his campaign. “It is disappointing that as the Chair of the County Commission you continue to attack the school district, and support developers over your local students, teachers, staff, and schools while spreading misinformation,” School Board member Colleen Conklin wrote him the next day. “I’m grateful for your colleagues and their continued support of our schools over the years. It is appropriate to ask challenging questions and ask for additional information or data but to use your position to block or delay our ability to ask voters for a renewal of our sales tax is beyond unprofessional and simply hard to comprehend. Please focus on trimming your own budget and the rest of us will focus on trimming ours. We may disagree on a few things, but I would hope we could agree that if our schools are successful, we are ALL successful.”
Characteristically, Mullins responded by insulting Conklin, calling her email “silly” and “unhinged,” before beginning to prevaricate: “I asked for some clarity on the 1/2 cent sales tax. I never got that,” Mullins wrote. “Again, I am not comfortable without some information on this before it is discussed. There are many residents of this county crying out for help and relief as the inflation, gas prices and price of goods rises. They are asking for a break or pause on tax increases. This is an area that could be considered a reduction. But again I am not clear on what this is for.”
By last week, after meeting with Ryan Diesing, the district’s technology director, Mullins was back in the fold, describing the tax as “crucial for technology, Safety, creating great skills for high paying career jobs and much more.” But he did not go as far as Hansen had earlier in the meeting and pledge that he’d speak in support of the renewal everywhere he could.
Dance, picking up where he left off in 2012, cheered the renewal on: “I’ve witnessed so many students that have benefited over the last 10 years from the funds of the half penny sales tax,” Dance said, ” and this is crucial funding for the district in order for us to continue to be a top district in the state and I look forward this time to be able to push this language forward to the voters.”
The Half-Penny Sales Tax Documentation:half-cent-sales-tax
As a long time resident of PC I really don’t think I’ve noticed the difference… sales tax renewal, not a big deal in my opinion. The loss of additional sales tax revenue from out of county “pass through traffic” due to poor urban growth planning and asset placement… a really, really big deal, in my opinion.
I do not have children in the Flagler County schools any longer but I strongly support the half penny sales tax. I have never noticed the difference with it in my pocket book. We need to support the school district as our children depend on us! Oh and I’m a Republican. I support this tax because we will get an excellent return on our investment.
Merrill Shapiro says
Perhaps inadvertently, this article contains a hidden gem! “By 2019, just 16.9 percent of the population was 18 or younger, while the 65-and-over proportion had grown sharply to 30.7 percent, an enormous shift for a relatively small county, demographically speaking.”
In fact, families with students pay about 1/6th of cost of operating our schools. Here, in the United States of America, that means that those families should have a 1/6th voice in the operation of our schools.
I sense that Mom’s for Liberty wants six sixths, 100% of a voice in the operation of our schools. But that’s not the way it works. You pay a fraction of the cost, you get a fraction of the say in determing how our schools are run!
More money for Staly to piss away !!!!!
Until you cry for a cop to help you out. Get real. Palm Coast has expanded exponentially. Your choice is more cops or more crime. What is your choice ?
Deborah Coffey says
I’m an older voter with no children in school and, I’m happy to pay the sales tax for things kids need…UNLESS one penny of it goes to ARMING teachers. If that happens, I’ll be voting “NO.”
It should be posted as to where the $$$$ goes. It may surprise us.