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Keep it in the classroom
January 19, 2018

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Saying they are faced with $478 million in critical capital needs, Lee County School District administrators and school board members are delving into ways to raise enough money to build new schools and equip, upgrade and maintain the ones they have.

Among the options explored?

Certificates of participation involving private investors, asking the state Legislature to allow the district to levy additional property taxes, voter-approved borrowing via General Obligation bonds, higher impact fees on new construction and - the apparent funding method of choice - a voter-approved half-cent sales tax that would raise up to $59 million annually for district needs.

School Board members gave their initial nod to the sales tax option this week with formal action, and possibly a vote, expected Tuesday.

As discussed, the district is contemplating a special election to be held as early as May. Officials hope Lee County voters will agree there is a need and then tax themselves to make sure the district not only has the ability to house an annual influx of 1,800-plus new students a year, but pay for things such as buses, athletic and program enhancements, security and maintenance.

We look forward to additional details and debate substantiating the need for an additional near half billion in revenue to come largely from taxpayers buying goods in Lee County.

We don't, however, look forward to - or support - a special election as is contemplated: Lee County voters face both a Primary and General Election this year and spending $1 million on a single-issue ballot is not the best way for the district to demonstrate either dire need or fiscal prudence.

According to the Lee County Supervisor of Elections Office, it will cost the Lee County School District just over $1 million for a special election.

Should the district opt to add early voting, the cost would bump up significantly - about $20,000 for each polling site. Depending on how many days early voting were to be held, the additional cost could be substantial. In 2014, when former congressman Trey Radel's seat was filled via a special election, the state refunded the Supervisor of Election's Office $1.5 million in costs for the near countywide election; 19 precincts were not in Radel's district and so not included.

Mail-ballot only is an option for this type of election. It, too, would be costly as it would require not one, but two mailings, along with postage for ballots returned. Every registered Lee County voter would be sent a notice in advance of the election to be followed by a ballot package.

Total cost? Around $900,000.

Meanwhile, Lee County Supervisor of Elections Tommy Doyle said his office can accommodate a school district referendum on either the August Primary or November General Election ballot.

For about $50 to cover the cost of translating the ballot language for the district referendum into Spanish.

In fact, not only would piggybacking on, say, the General Election - judging by turnout, the voters' historical ballot of choice - be vastly cheaper, but more convenient for the Elections Office as well as its staff would not have to contend with a special election while gearing up for the race-heavy even-year primary in August.

Lots cheaper.

More convenient for voters and the Elections Office alike.

What, then, could be the advantage of dropping a million bucks on a special election?

Well, the lower the voter turnout, the easier it can be to control results. Put another way, it doesn't take nearly as many votes to "win," and it's much easier to rally a supportive core.

But that's just us being cynical.

So let us be practical. That million dollars apparently in hand? It could be better spent in the classroom.

Spend it there.

Otherwise, it's going to be harder to convince voters you're actually counting the pennies you already have.

-Breeze editorial

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