My family and I moved to Lee County from upstate New York about 6 years ago. We moved for several reasons. Our property values were decreasing while our property taxes were increasing, and the public school system was failing our children. We wanted to find a place with good schools, low taxes, and a conservative constituency so that our children would learn to contribute to their community, rather than expect government to answer all of the ills of society. Basically, we voted with our feet.
I had been reading the newspapers in several communities in the years before we moved. The News-Press was one of them. From the articles, I got a sense that Lee County was a community of people who shared our values. When I looked into the schools, I was encouraged. I learned that one’s zip code did not dictate the quality of education. I also learned about the programs available – International Baccalaureate, Career Academies, Arts and Cambridge - and determined they would surely meet the needs of my own children in the years to come. Another reason we found Lee County attractive was the fact that the School District had never in its history exercised an option for a discretionary tax.
I am a conservative who wants to raise my family in a conservative community. This, at its very core, means low taxes. It also means local control. Public education is perhaps, the arena of government that best exemplifies the need for local control. Policy coming out of Tallahassee or Washington, D.C. cannot possibly meet the unique needs of our community.
For these reasons it might seem ironic that I am educating voters on the need for a half cent sales tax, but I have learned a lot about the funding of our schools. Over the past decade, the state removed our ability to charge .5 mill in property taxes, resulting in a $200 million dollar decrease per year in capital funding for our schools. In addition, Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) dollars have been all but eliminated.
The funding decreases began during the recession. We, like every other local government, cut spending. We found efficiencies even when there did not seem to be any to find. We should thank the state for getting us to the point we find ourselves in today – we are lean and our students are accomplishing academic success at record levels in Lee County. But, we have been forced to tighten our belt to such an extent that we now face a capital funding crisis.
There are only 6 counties in the entire state that are growing the way we are growing. We have between 1,500 and 2,000 new students per year moving to Lee County. Our schools are at capacity. We have no place to educate these new students. If we do not act locally to generate revenue to build new schools, we will fail our students and our entire community. The other 5 growing counties all have a surtax. While the District is generating some revenue through innovative programs, we cannot “bake sale” our way out of a $478 million dollar need.
One of the primary purposes of government is building infrastructure. In the same way that the County builds new roads as more people move to Lee County, it is incumbent upon us to provide the infrastructure our children need to get an education.
Chris Patricca, School Board Member, District 3