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Linda Evanchyk Discusses the Half-Cent Tax


Dan: NewsTalk 1260. Hello, you're on the air.

Vince Mayfield: Good morning, Dan. How are you, sir?

Dan: Oh, it's Vince Mayfield. How are you, Vince?

Vince Mayfield: I am fantastic and I'm in great company today.

Dan: I know you are because you told me you were going to call in, Vince. By the way, for those of you that don't know Vincent, and you should, he's the 2020 Chairman of the Board of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. Yes, congratulations on that title, Vince. I know it's been probably a trying year for you and the chamber as well as everybody else, but accompanying you is Okaloosa County School Board member, Linda, is it Evanchyk? Did I get that right?

Linda Evanchyk: Evanchyk.

Dan: Evanchyk, okay. I knew I'd mess that up.

Linda Evanchyk: It's okay.

Dan: And district three representative, welcome to you, Linda. We appreciate you coming on the show today.

Linda Evanchyk: Good morning.

Dan: And I know why you guys are here this morning because we're going to be talking about referendum that's going to be on November the third. School Sense Makes Sense, so we can have some extra money to be able to take care of the infrastructure on all Okaloosa County schools. And I-

Vince Mayfield: That's absolutely correct, Dan. Half penny, modest tax tied directly to infrastructure, and then with an accountability group of Citizens Advisory Council, to ensure that we are able to make sure the public is aware and they have transparency, and reassure that the money's being spent the right way.

Dan: I know honestly, Vince, people are concerned about that, but with the transparency part of this, and I know there are projects that are vitally important to the Okaloosa County Schools, people will be able to see what projects are underway and that's good for people for their peace of mind thinking, well, here's just another tax and it's not just another tax. As a matter of fact, this would start if it passes, will start on January the 1st of 2021, and it will sunset in 10 years from that point, if it's not reinstated, but right now it's a 10 year sunset. It's not like it's going to be on there forever. There is a sunset for this, which a lot of people, when they start talking about raising taxes, they like to know, all right, so what's the end date on this, if there is one and that's good for people to know.

Vince Mayfield: Absolutely, Dan.

Dan: And Linda, I see that you are an award winning classroom teacher for 38 years. And you've been here in Okaloosa County forever, it looks like. Well, I shouldn't say forever because, well, we're the same age. A product of Okaloosa County School District, I see that you attended elementary school, middle school and high schools graduating from Choctawhatchee high school in 1974. Now, I don't know if you really care if I said that number or not-

Linda Evanchyk: You're fine.

Dan: But that is exactly the same year that I graduated, but not from Choctawhatchee.

Linda Evanchyk: It was a good year, wasn't it?

Dan: It was a fantastic year. I want to tell you.

Linda Evanchyk: Good, good.

Dan: Now mine was up in... I was in Salt Lake City, Utah. I graduated from a high school up there called Granger High School. That's my alma mater, and nobody here has ever heard of that, so I'll just leave that one alone.

Linda Evanchyk: Well, Dan, I'm very proud to say that I grew up in Okaloosa County and I was proud to say that I worked in this county as a teacher, and as soon as I retired, I immediately ran for the school board seat. So, I'm very steeped into this district, which is why I've worked alongside this committee as a board member to support this initiative. When I was running, I said that I would support this tax and I voted for it when the board was asked to, and I've spent my time trying to educate our citizens on the need and why this is so important for our students. I want our current students and our future students to be as proud as I am that they had the facilities and the quality education. Now, we're giving it to them academically, but they should be able to be in a facility and have the things that I was given at the time that I was in school, so that's why it's so important to me.

Dan: Absolutely, Linda, and I got to ask, because I get this question asked to me several times because people hear us talk about this, and then I get phone calls periodically throughout the weeks and they want to know, well, how did the schools get into the shape they're in right now?

Linda Evanchyk: I'll be glad to answer that. Of course, this doesn't happen overnight, and because I've lived through this, I can kind of tell you. First of all, a little bit of history. If you go back from about 1965 to the mid seventies, we had a big explosion of population in Okaloosa County and we built a bunch of schools. Well, when you do the math, that's where we are right now. Those schools have come of age and while we have done some repairs on them, it's all kind of hit at one time. That's one of the problems. Then when you hit back into about 1989, another big thing happened in our district. We moved from having high school, 10 through 12 to a middle school system. So, we came in and we had to reconfigure our high schools. We had to add because we added the ninth grade, which we added somewhere between five and 600 students to each of our high schools. We had to redo them then, okay? Then when we hit into the nineties, we had grown so much in the north end, we built and actually out and destined to, we had to take our money and build some new schools, so we had some new growth. So, we couldn't spend our money so much on fixing some things. So as you go through, you can see where the money has been spent. So, it's not just that we've neglected. It's just that over time, these things built up. In the meanwhile, the amount of money coming for us to be able to use on capital expenditures has decreased.

Dan: Well, that doesn't help. So that being said, putting new schools in, obviously takes the money away from repairs and upgrades from the older schools, so now the older schools are going to need the repairs, the money's just not there. That's what I'm getting from what you're saying here.

Linda Evanchyk: Correct.

Dan: And not only that-

Vince Mayfield: I think another thing is-

Dan: **crosstalk** still have to have repairs as well. I'm sorry. Go ahead, Vince.

Vince Mayfield: Oh, I was just going to say, and another thing that's absolutely critical that Linda talked about there is just that, she talked about that all of that information, how they've spent the money over the years is out there in the clear public view. So, this notion that somehow there's some malfeasance or something that's going on, it's absolutely not true. If you go out, you can go to any one of the websites. You can go to the Okaloosa County School District website, or you can go out to the Florida Department of Education and you can review every budget every year, how they spend it, how it's broken down by administrative capital, as well as operations and maintenance. And all of their meetings are taped. All of their meetings are open to the public and people can come in and give their input in terms of what they think or what they would like to have done. But as Linda pointed out to me earlier when we were talking about, very few citizens actually show up to their budgetary meetings and this is hence, why she's spending so much time and why School Sense Makes Sense is spending so much time trying to educate the public that it's not, hey, we just need to tighten our belt or sharpen our pencil. The pencil's already sharpened. And again, they are highly regulated. Every year, they are audited. Every year, those audited results are sent to the Florida Department of Education and they review those. And if there was a major issue or something like that, going on, somebody would be in jail at this point, and it's just not the case. It's just not the case. The public has a misconception.

Linda Evanchyk: And Dan-

Dan: Well, there is a misconception out there that's being publicly broadcast, so I know what you're saying.

Linda Evanchyk: And Dan, this is all over. Look to all the other districts. There are only two districts that have more than 10,000 students in the State of Florida that do not have a sales tax for infrastructure. Ours is one of them. And the other one is Duvall County in Jacksonville. Both of them have a referendum on the ballot this year. Everybody else has already done this. Look to the west of us, they have it. Look to the east of us, they have it. So, if Okaloosa was not spending their money wisely, why is it that all of the other districts already have it? It's not just us. We have held off in doing this. We have really held back and just waited till we've had to do this. And actually, this should have been done at an earlier time, but I just don't see how we can say that we've misused the funds because this is happening throughout the state because the funding sources have changed. So, if you don't mind, I'm going to jump into something. I don't know if you were going to ask about this. Let me just go ahead and jump into the lottery.

Dan: Yes.

Linda Evanchyk: I tell you what the State of Florida did the best PR on the lottery back in '86, if anything, because we're still on it, but they did a show game on that. They said, " Oh, the lottery is going to take care of this." But what they did is, it's kind of like, you give us this money, but we're going to take away that. So basically, here's what happens to the lottery. The lotteries in 1986, the districts received 43% of some money that goes into the educational enhancement trust fund. It goes into a fund. Okay, but what the money goes to is what they call, recognition programs. All right. So, what happens is schools get graded, like A's and so forth. All the schools that get an A, those schools get a certain amount of money based on the number of students they have. And that money goes to teacher bonuses, which is great. That's fine, but that doesn't fix the plumbing, okay? That money cannot be spent on maintenance and so forth. Another thing that happened with that is, in 2002, the voters of Florida said, " We want a class size amendment. We don't want 30 kindergartners in a room. We don't want that." So, that's all great, too. However, when you put fewer students in a classroom, you have to hire more teachers, you have to have more rooms. We had to find money for that. So, that's happened to, some of that lottery money. And then the other thing is that, students who have high grades and certain criteria, they get what's known as a Bright Future Scholarship. That scholarship pays for tuition, if they will stay in Florida and go to college. So, the lottery money has some good uses, but the use is not for capital expenses in the school district. So, that's what's happened. That lottery money is not going for the purpose that we need the sales tax money for.

Vince Mayfield: And Linda, can you expand on that a little bit, too, because I think a lot of voters don't understand about the buckets of money and how legally you cannot cross the streams or put money in different buckets, money that's allocated a certain way. Can you talk to that please?

Dan: [crosstalk 00:00:11:39].

Linda Evanchyk: Yeah, the-

Dan: I'm sorry to interrupt.

Linda Evanchyk: Yeah, go ahead.

Dan: But we have to take a commercial break and we'll be back in just a couple of minutes and we can go into those different pots of money that you're talking about, because that was interesting about the lottery, because I know people thought that went to education, but maybe not exactly where in education it went. That was my understanding anyway. So, let's come back. We'll take a quick break and we will be right back again. We have Vince Mayfield, the 2020, our Chairman of the Board for the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, and we have Okaloosa County School Board member, Linda Evanchyk. Is it even check?

Linda Evanchyk: Evanchyk.

Dan: Evanchyk. I knew I'd get that right, sooner or later.

Vince Mayfield: You're right before the end, Dan.

Linda Evanchyk: It's okay. That's okay.

Dan: I got you.

Vince Mayfield: She knows who she is.

Dan: I know. Well, and hear the district three representative and we'll come back and we'll talk with you in about three minutes, so hang tight. We're talking about the referendum is going to be voted on November 3rd, School Sense Makes Sense, and just before the break, we were talking about different pots of money for the education.

Vince Mayfield: **crosstalk** a long time until...

Dan: Are you there? And we're on.

Vince Mayfield: We are here, sir.

Dan: Yeah, absolutely. And I was just saying before the break, we were talking about different pots of money that the school board, actually a school district has, and different things they spend that on, and before that was the lottery and how that kind of related to everything, but continue on, Linda, if you would please.

Linda Evanchyk: Well, I think one thing maybe citizens don't quite realize is that in the budgeting of school districts is a lot of categorical funding. In other words, we're not just sent a pot of money and said, " Y'all figure it out." In another words, when your own personal budget, you might say, " Well, we're going to cut back on electricity, so we can maybe spend this more on these kinds of things." We can't do that. The state sends money to us, and they tell us this has to be spent on certain things. The actual discretionary piece where we actually can decide what we're going to spend it on is very, very small. We almost kind of laugh because the state might say, " You've got to buy green pencils with this money." And we may say, " But we need pens." Doesn't matter. You're going to buy the green pencils. And so, it's frustrating sometimes because each district needs different things. The needs in Okaloosa County are not the same as say in Miami-Dade County. But oftentimes the legislature says, " This is what we think the schools need." So, categorical funds sometimes hold us back, and that's another reason why this money allows us... because the state has gone to a method of funding where they're saying we're allowing states to put referendums on ballots so they can get their own citizens to pay for this infrastructure the way they want to.

Vince Mayfield: She meant the counties there, instead of the state.

Linda Evanchyk: Yeah.

Vince Mayfield: But interestingly, Dan, I would also mention, I know you've heard me say this. When you look at Florida as a whole, the governor, DeSantis, has said that he's making education a priority now and has tried to put some more funding in there. Florida ranks 43 out of 50 in all the states in per people funding in education, and that's sad. We're one of the largest states in the country and we're 43rd, and we ranked some the lowest at teacher pay. Although I will say in general, Florida does have better results in terms of producing top-notch students, but the facilities, the conditions here are horrible. And again, we talked about the lottery a second ago, they went from funding basically 51% of education from the state and then leaving the rest to localities to take care of. They dropped it down to 42%, and now the schools in the local counties have to make up that difference. They've got to figure out where it's at. So, they've made it a local problem and this is why our initiative is a local initiative. And it's why it's a grassroots initiative that was born out of the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce with business leaders in the community and other business in the community and the Destin Chamber of Commerce, because we realize how important this is to our community. I've told you before that schools are ultimately economic drivers. They drive people into the workforce. They're also evaluated from the perspective of bringing new businesses to the local area, and it is part of an ecosystem, and schools are a major component of that.

Dan: You mentioned in the past, Vince, that when you hired very high level engineers for your companies, that some engineers have opted out to come down to the panhandle in our area because of the appearance of the schools.

Vince Mayfield: That is correct. We've had that happen to us here, twice here at Bit Wizards. I talked with Tim Bolduc of Crestview, who's the Crestview City Administrator. He told me they've lost several doctors to the north end of the county, trying to get specialists to come in because of the conditions of the schools, and I've talked to other business owners in the area that have had problems with recruiting people to come here. In addition to that, if you speak with Nathan Sparks and the Economic Development Council, he will tell you that site selectors, that come into evaluate our area and decide whether or not to move businesses here and we all know that up in Shoal River, we've been trying to get a fairly significant business to come in there that would bring in high-tech and high paying jobs. They look at our schools. They look at our workforce. They look at affordable housing. Those are critical pieces, and if they can go someplace else where the schools are better and where housing is better, and these other things, then they will, and Okaloosa suffers in the long run.

Dan: I see. So, we're just about out of time, but one more question. First of all, what happens if this does not pass? And second of all, why is no, not a solution to the problem that we have?

Linda Evanchyk: Well, if this does not pass, it's going to be a really dire situation. Obviously, we have to work on priorities. We just had in the last week, a major plumbing issue at an elementary school in our area and an air conditioning problem that we're having to use emergency funds from our school district to work on. We're going to do everything we can to keep our students safe and to offer them the best, but it is a dire situation. The district will do all we can and prioritize, but it will be a really tough situation. And this will, I don't know.... I know there are rules about getting it back on the ballot. There's a length of time before you can pull this thing back out, but it's hard to think about, that this wouldn't pass and that we would allow these students to continue to be in these poor circumstances, truly.

Dan: Gotcha.

Vince Mayfield: I would say, Dan, that no is not an option. No, is a cop out in my opinion. This isn't a political issue. This is a community issue. This is one that we should be able to be united upon. People want to get back after watching Tom Brady play football and they want to play armchair quarterback, well, that's basically what we're doing with the school district. And a lot of folks are not educated about how this works and what's going on. We're asking them to take the time to get themselves educated. We're asking them to say, " Hey, we do have a revenue problem here. They're not overspending. They're not asking for nice to have. They're asking for bare essentials." If we can do this, if we can come together as a community and make this happen, this is the cards that have been forced on us, I think that we, as a community, can solve this problem, but saying, " No," isn't solving the problem. It's continuing to kick the can down the road. And ultimately there will come a reckoning if that continues. What we will start to do is lose teachers. We will start to have people take their kids over to neighboring counties. You've heard me say it before, Dan, I'm a big proponent of the school system and I've got a daughter that's in middle school now at Liza Jackson. She's at one of the charter schools. I have the means to take my kid and take them someplace else. Not everybody does, but I'm going to tell you that if we don't solve these problems, that's what I'll do. I'm going to continue to fight for it, and I think that we need to solve this problem as a community and get it fixed because our teachers, our students, deserve better.

Dan: Roger that. Well, thank you so much both of you, for taking the time to talk to us about School Sense, Makes Sense, and present the great, I wouldn't even say an argument, the reasoning why we need it, and we appreciate you taking your time. Again, in case you're just joining us, we have the 2020 Chairman of the Board of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, Vince Mayfield. Big push on this. Thank you, Vince. Also, Okaloosa County School Board member, Linda Evanchyk, a district three representative, and we appreciate both of your time to come on and talk with us about this. And this referendum is coming up on November the 3rd, so make sure you get out and vote. You can vote early. All the voting is open early. It started yesterday and goes until October the 31st. If not, get yourself out there on November the 3rd and vote. Thank you so much, both of you.