Marcus Chambers Discusses Half-Cent Tax Projects
Dan: On the phone with me I have a Vince Mayfield who was the 2020 Chairman of the Board of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce also, Marcus Chambers, the superintendent of schools for Okaloosa County School District recently elected as everybody knows. Welcome guys.
Vince Mayfield: Hey Dan.
Dan: How are you?
Marcus Chambers: Good morning.
Dan: Is everybody doing well?
Vince Mayfield: We are absolutely.
Dan: Let's see now, Vince. Exactly why are you guys calling in today?
Vince Mayfield: Well, we're calling in today to talk about the School Cents Make Sense campaign and we are trying to make sure that our schools are adequately funded and so that they can address all the capital needs they have. We're talking about things like roofs, and HVACs, and technology, and security things that must be done. Literally our schools are falling apart and so as just an overview for some of the folks there, it is a half penny local option sales tax that will go for 10 years and it can only be used for infrastructure needs. There will be a citizen's advisory council that will help oversee those projects and we've published a complete needs list and all the projects out on our website at schoolcentsmakessense. com.
Dan: Sounds good. And Marcus, just kind of curious, I guess you've been overlooking all these projects and you're wondering, okay, not wondering, but you're probably racking and stacking to find out which ones you think will be the most beneficial in all the schools in Okaloosa County.
Marcus Chambers: Well, so first of all, every school has a project list and part of what I'm very proud of on the project list, it's not even necessarily what I want. It was a combination of a group called Jacobs Titan that manages a lot of our construction maintenance needs as well as input from every principal, as well as school advisory council members as well. So a very detailed list created, not a list of just wishes, but a whole bunch of needs.
Dan: Yeah. I know that you guys went through all the schools. I know Vince did, was doing the other world tour of all the schools and was looking at them. And I guess everybody has figured out the most, I guess, the biggest projects that need to happen in the schools and that is what this is all about, is to try and fix the schools, maybe upgrade the schools. What are your thoughts on that Vince? I know you've seen an awful lot of this and it's all been racked. I shouldn't say racked and stacked. It's all been categorized, I guess, on the most need. What would you call it? The projects that need to be done first.
Vince Mayfield: Well, It's the most need.
Vince Mayfield: Yeah, the things that need to be done first. So I'll take a step back, many, many years ago when I was a young engineer, I worked over for Delta BTG, which eventually is now Jacobs Titan. And that particular company just to sort of provide a little visibility, does real property management for the Department of Defense. They go out and they look at all the military facilities and they do this very thing, and they have a very mathematical model in a way that they go in with civil engineers, and planners, and estimators to go in and take a look and evaluate the condition of buildings so that money can properly be allocated and get these things done. And in fact, I wasn't on the particular team that built the mathematical model, but I know the guys that did and that has translated into something that we've got some of the top experts in the world at doing this type of thing. And so when we talk about the list, I mean, we're talking about things that are absolutely essential. And I... They rank order them and then at some point administration has to come in and take a look at it and say, okay, now they've ranked it based upon the best way to accomplish a project or stuff like that. But then at some point an executive as to sit down and make a decision and say, " Okay, we've got to do this one first. This need is more important at this particular time." So I know they're working hard to do things the right way. We've got great people working in the county and they want nothing more than to provide a safe and environmentally sound environment for our students and our teachers. They deserve it.
Dan: Absolutely, and Vince, could you give our audience some examples of things that need to be repaired in these schools?
Vince Mayfield: Yeah. I mean, well, the first thing we've got to address is we've got roofs that are basically falling apart, if you go out to Get the Coast, there's some videos that have been done by Jared Williams, a reporter in the local area, he's gone through Choctaw High School, he's gone through Destin Middle School, he's gone through Edge, and you can look at it yourself. And if you look at it, I promise you, you will be absolutely appalled. I went to Choctaw, I've seen it, I've seen it firsthand and it's terrible. It's not just roofs, it's also ACs. We've got sewage that's backing up into some of the classrooms. I know that Choctaw had a huge sewage problem where they had to route kids around and they are doing their very best, but you can only do so much.
Dan: Yeah. It sounds like that would be a big project to redo the sewer system. Is that what you're referring to is redoing the sewer system at the school?
Vince Mayfield: Yep, and then also on top of that, and we'll let Marcus talk to this. I know there was a mandate by the state because the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting that requires the schools to institute mandatory security enhancements, and those are not fully funded from the state. They have to implement these in post haste.
Marcus Chambers: Absolutely, and Vince did a great job of kind of outlining some of the other needs, but safety is critical and safety is a mandate from the state in terms of creating even more secure schools. So single point of entry is a term that we've talked a lot about over the last a number of years, we have proactively started that process, but we have a number of schools that still need to have the single point of entry done. So with this half-cent sales tax, I think the safety of our school buildings, the safety of our students, and our teachers, and staff is paramount. And this would allow us to expedite the process of getting all of our schools done with single point of entry as well.
Dan: There's other schools, I know in the area, that has multiple entrances just into the classrooms themselves. That must be a challenge on its own.
Marcus Chambers: So it is, when you look at some of our RAMP schools and with the thought in mind of making sure that they are as safe as possible, this is where the single point of entry becomes even more critical. We want to make sure that the perimeter of our schools is secure, but also limiting the number of ways that individuals can get into the school once the school day starts. So some of our schools have it, but they're not single point of entry schools yet because what you have to do is you have to make sure that the inside, once you enter, that the walls are hardened, the glasses are hardened to make sure that the school is safe. So if someone wanted to do harm coming into a school, they would not be able to have entry into the school building. So safety is one aspect of the goal of the half cent as well as many of the other topics that Vince just mentioned.
Dan: Yeah. That makes sense too, sir, because of the fact, I think when people think about security, they're thinking about just having an individual there as a security guard, but you're talking about upgrading the glass, upgrading probably doors, things of that nature that's all going to cost money.
Marcus Chambers: No, absolutely. We're fortunate when you talk about the individuals, we're fortunate to have the best school resource officer program in the state and maybe even the nation, but there's so much more when you start talking about single point of entry or fencing, as well as there's many behind the scene items that have to be done that you're not able to speak of for security reasons, but there's a number of pieces that we need to continue to enhance in order to make our schools as safe as possible.
Dan: Understandable. Yeah.
Vince Mayfield: There's another area too, Dan, that we haven't talked about and that's technology, which you know is near and dear to my heart.
Dan: Maybe just a little.
Vince Mayfield: And a couple of years back... Yeah. A couple of years back, I was talking with one of the guys over at the county that runs the IT and he was explaining to me that some of our schools... We have the Okaloosa Metropolitan Network. Some of our schools don't actually have fiber run out to them and so they're still running on old DSL in some cases. In some cases, they don't have top of the line computers, even computers that in our business I would have already thrown away and deprecated. They've got hand-me-downs, from hand-me-downs, from hand-me-downs overhead projectors, instructional, things like that, that make a huge difference in the way that you operate and run a classroom. They simply don't have the budget for them. That's for some of these types of things as well.
Dan: Understandably, so that the teachers, I guess, and the students are all working off of pretty much outdated equipment it sounds like.
Vince Mayfield: Yeah and like a building and like a number of, your car, as things get older with age, you can try to continue to repair them but eventually they come to a point where it's too costly to repair. This is why most organizations, large size, when it comes to technology the rip and replace at five years is pretty typical even now with laptops and mobile devices. And the way technology is changing, in some cases, that's down to three years. And so trying to keep pace, and keep all the software, and the networks, and all that moving is a very daunting task and it's a capital intensive task.
Dan: With that Vince, who's speaking of technology, would that also mean the wiring would have to be replaced in the schools to be able to handle all of the new technology?
Vince Mayfield: Yeah, in some cases. I mean, when we were over at Bruner, I was looking at it how they were patch working and trying to get some wireless up inside of the schools. And to me, I looked at that and said, they're doing the best that they can with what they got, but remember you've got to go fish all that line down through there in the time that... in the last 20 years, we've had three different types of wiring that you go to. I mean, remember all the way back and the Token Ring BNC connectors, and then we went to Cat 4, Cat 5, and now we're at Cat 6,. And then on top of that it's got to be fire rated and a number of other things. So going back through and running all that line, it's not cheap, and it's difficult, and it's a daunting task.
Dan: Do you think that's presented a bigger problem now that kids who were, well back in the spring, when all the kids had to do work from home, that must have put quite the pressure on that equipment?
Vince Mayfield: Well, I'm sure it did. I can let Marcus talk to this, but I just want to say one thing they did one hell of a monumental job getting laptops out to students, Chromebooks and things like that, and making sure people had hotspots. I just got to pat them on the back. I mean, it was unprecedented to be able to put that together and my hats off to them, that's a logistics feat and coordination feat that rivals what the military has to do. The only differences is, is that these folks did it with a lot less money.
Marcus Chambers: Well, and I'll even go back to the original question dealing with technology and one of the things I say to people all the time is we're fortunate. We have one of the top rated school districts in the state of Florida. Currently, we're ranked number four in the state of Florida academically. We've been as high as number two academically. And I always say, just imagine what we could do even more so with some more up-to-date equipment, and I'm not talking about luxury items, but when you look at some of our technology we have overhead projectors, we have document cameras, and these types of equipment are good, but they're even becoming outdated. When you see a number of schools, when they're being built, you will see flat screen interactive devices that teachers are utilizing to help kids learn, to engage students. And right now we've piecemealed some of that based on whether school board members have helped with certain purchases of those items, but we do not have that across the board like some places have. Then you start looking at what this pandemic has brought out, when you start looking at your ability to educate students online. We had what was called Okaloosa Online before, and we maybe had 400, 500 kids online, but now we have over 7, 000 students online to date and when you do that, when you start talking about bandwidth, or you start talking about your ability to synchronously bring students into a classroom that are at home in learn, well, there's a lot of technology that's needed within a classroom in order to do that and right now, unfortunately, we don't have that technology to be able to do it. So technology is also a part of this half cent campaign and it's something that could do our students and our teachers very well.
Vince Mayfield: Think about what that does Dan for the workforce of tomorrow, right? If they're using antiquated technology and they come out in the workforce, what does that mean for employers that have to train? We have this problem in the corporate world and we've been addressing it where some of the kids that are coming out, they've got better technology at home than some companies do in their corporations. And corporations are realizing that, hey, if we want to keep and retain this talent we've got to do this. Well, that starts also down at the schools when the kids have got better technology at home than they have in their classroom, what does that mean for their ability to utilize that technology in an educational setting and then take it out there and apply it into the real world?
Dan: That's a very good point, Vince, but what about the kids that don't have the technology at home and all they do know is what they get at school?
Vince Mayfield: And I think that's where the technology is even more important. You start looking at... At least what we're doing here in Okaloosa County, we want the technology to start at the elementary level so there's a true pipeline from elementary all the way to high school, but we don't even want to stop there. We want that pipeline to actually go from elementary to the workforce, so whether you're talking about the type of technology in a classroom that helps with instruction, or even the technology that students can utilize through coding. So for example, coding is something that we're looking at broadening from the elementary level, all the way through high school, and even to companies in our local area, and we kind of call it a community of code. So how can we become even better with technology to help with instruction, but also help prepare our students for the future?
Dan: Right. What about, because I was just thinking, what about those kids that are going to go through high school, graduate high school, maybe not go to college or not even a technical school trying to get into the workforce, if they have leading technology that they're working with in high school, I would think that would benefit them when they go into the workforce.
Vince Mayfield: Absolutely. And I would say that we have a huge need for science, mathematics, and engineering folks in the corporate world and in the workforce. And those kids get that spark when they start early, if you turn them on to technology, things like coding, utilizing those types of tools, that translates as they go through from kindergarten all the way to high school, and then maybe they go to college, or maybe they go out into the workforce and apply that technology. It's absolutely critical.
Dan: Absolutely. Yeah. It gives the kids a lot better advantage, I would think when they go into the workforce, if they'd been working with equipment that's updated and current versus antiquated equipment, even though the schools are doing their very best to keep the technology as high as they possibly can with the funds that they have, you bring funds into the program and they update everything and the kids are able to learn on more modern, and updated, and current equipment, and software, and everything. I would imagine that is a benefit to everybody.
Vince Mayfield: Absolutely. So Marcus, I wanted to ask you, how you think that the condition of the schools affects the teachers and the students in terms of, what does it mean to them?
Marcus Chambers: Well, absolutely. I always say our maintenance and facilities group they work really hard and they work really hard to maintain the facilities that we have, but the fact is 61% of them are 50 years of age or older and 75% of our facilities are 45 years of age or older. So when you're in a classroom and there might be a leaky roof, or when you're in a classroom and the air conditioning isn't working, or you're in a classroom and the flooring isn't what it should be, or even the classroom set up isn't what it should be, sometimes it can be disheartening, but our teachers are strong, resilient, so are our students. But I always just say, what do we want the next generation of Okaloosa schools to look like? Right now, November 3rd, there's a big decision in terms of what will the next 20 years plus of our school district look like what's going to be the direction. And I always go back to as well, in Okaloosa County, we have some of the best students in the state of Florida who go on to do great things. We have some of the best teachers, and staff, and principals in the state of Florida. Just imagine what could happen if we weren't worried about facilities, if we weren't worried about air conditioning. Over at Fort Walton Beach High School, the example I give, we've been fixing their air conditioning system for over five years because we don't have the funds to fix it all in one fell swoop, or a roofing project over at Niceville that you got a piecemeal as well, but $1. 3 million just to fix a few roofs, but you can't do it all in one piece. So there's a sense of pride when you have a school building that doesn't have just some of these areas that needed to be fixed, but there's a sense of pride when you can go to your school knowing that even the basics are going to work each day.
Dan: Good point.
Vince Mayfield: The interesting thing is every time I drive down over to Panama City and I see Dune Elementary School, it's beautiful. It's state-of-the-art, I've been inside of it, it's incredible. And I thought, holy cow, wouldn't it be nice if our students could have a similar facility, how would that facilitate the learning environment? How much better we would be able to go from there?
Marcus Chambers: I was fortunate yesterday, I went over to Walton County yesterday, just visited a few schools and the elementary school that, and Vince just mentioned, when you walk into that school building from the front office staff, to the teachers, to the principal, they are so proud of their school. And it's just one of the many new schools that they've built over there, and that they have the ability to build over there, because of the capital dollars that they have and because of the millage, the voted in millage, that they've received.
Dan: And I know [crosstalk 00:21:12 ].
Marcus Chambers: The last time we [crosstalk 00:21:12].
Dan: And they spend a lot more money per student don't they?
Marcus Chambers: They do and we kind of like to look at that cost in a five-year period, but you look at Okaloosa County and one of our most recent allocations, we spent about $237. 00 per student on capital. Whereas over in Walton County, probably 10 times that amount is spent and sometimes people ask why. Where in Okaloosa County, we receive about $30,000,000. 00 of new revenue in capital each year, but we have 32,000 students. Walton, $30,000,000.00 as well, but they have 9, 000 students plus a $9, 000,000.00 million millage. So they have almost $40,000,000.00. We have $30,000,000. 00, they have 9, 000 students, we have 32, 000 students. So they're able to do a lot more with the dollars that they receive.
Vince Mayfield: And then, Dan, the other thing too, is that the last time we did this was 25 years ago, 1995, and we've built three new schools since then. We built the Destin Middle, Antioch, and one other in the north part of the county.
Dan: And something you bring up there Vince, is the fact that this was brought up 25 years ago. I believe it went for four years, three or four years, and it did sunset and it was never brought up again. So there's people that sometimes get a little bit concerned that if we bring up a new tax increase, which would take effect on January 1st I take it, for 10 years, it would sunset after 10 years, some people feel like, well, they'll never do away with the tax, but if they look back 25 years ago, the mission was accomplished that they brought the tax increase for and it did go away.
Vince Mayfield: No, absolutely. And I'd say we would be fortunate, if we are fortunate enough to receive this half cent for 10 years, that would be our focus, would be the 10 year period and doing all that we can within there. And then whatever happens after the 10 years happens, but our focus is on this 10 years and what we can do with the money to get our schools in the position that they need to be in, as well as allowing us to prepare for future growth that we know is on the horizon.
Dan: I think the students of Okaloosa County, and the parents, and grandparents of all the students should be fortunate that they have people like yourselves that are fighting to make the increase and to upgrade and update the schools that our students all attend because it's only for the best possible school, and education, and experience for these kids.
Vince Mayfield: We agree 100%.
Dan: And by the way, this is a referendum that's going to be on the ballot on November 3rd and it is School Cense Makes Sense. So when you see that referendum, we urge you to vote yes on this because the kids, and the school district, all the schools, the teachers, the students, everybody benefits from this, the community benefits from this, and like yourself, Vince, you talked about it before, employers benefit from this because the schools look better and they're more appealing for people to move down here in high-paying jobs.
Vince Mayfield: I agree Dan, 100%. I think you've heard me say a couple of times that schools are actually economic drivers and I've talked to other business owners that have had a tough time recruiting people to come to the area, and I can tell you firsthand that we've experienced that as well. I spoke with Tim Bolduc, who is the City Administrator up in Crestview, he told me that they had three doctors that they needed for the north end of the county that they lost in terms of trying to get them here because of the condition of schools. And so this is a problem that is a community problem and we want to make sure that this gets addressed, and that our schools are adequately funded, and that we raise the standard of living, and the benefit for everybody here in Okaloosa County.
Dan: I agree. Well, guys, we're out of time. Again, it was Vince Mayfield, the 2020 Chairman of the Board of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, and Marcus Chambers, the superintendent of schools for Okaloosa County School District talking about School Cents Makes sense. Thanks guys. Appreciate you coming on the show this morning.