Okaloosa County Schools Need the Half-Cent Tax
Dan: ... W-F-T-W. And on the phone with me, I've got a 2020 chairman of the board for The Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. And along with Vince Bayfield, I do have Tom Rice for the Magnolia Grill. Good morning guys.
Tom Rice: Good morning.
Vince Mayfield: Good morning.
Tom Rice: It's good to talk to the Magnolia Grill Studio.
Dan: It is the Magnolia Grill Studio, could you bring me some bread beans and rice please?
Tom Rice: Oh, no. Vince, I'm looking around, and he doesn't have a kitchen in this space. He's got a really good coffee maker though. You need one just like his.
Dan: Oh, you mean instead of the brown, what'd you call it, brown acid. Yeah, okay. I got you.
Tom Rice: But I'm not paying for it. The studio sponsor only goes so far.
Dan: Okay. That's no reflection on the Magnolia Grill. Let's make that clear.
Tom Rice: They have great coffee there. And great food.
Dan: And great... Yes, and they're open. That's a bonus. All right. So you guys called in, because you want to talk about something very near and dear to your hearts. And I know what that is. So, Vince, do you want to take the lead on this one?
Vince Mayfield: Absolutely. So as many of you know, we have a campaign. It came as a grassroots movement, of business owners in the local area, and The Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, and the other chambers of commerce. Dustin, Niceville, Valpo, and Crestview have all joined in with us. And we are trying to get a half cent tax passed to improve our schools. Our school infrastructure is falling apart, and we know that schools are economic drivers. And so this grassroots movement is trying to make this happen, and educate the voters. And let them know about the conditions of our schools, and how they can get out and help and support.
Dan: Yes. And I know Vince, when we were doing interviews in the studio, you had been going out and looking at these schools, being that you're the chairman of The Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. You were going around looking at each and every school, to find out what the condition of each school was. And after you did your rounds, and you had eyes on, what was your perspective on that?
Vince Mayfield: Well, it's interesting that you mentioned that because, Get The Coast just did a great video of my Alma mater, which is Choctawhatchee High School, I graduated there in 1984. And I pulled over to the side of the road at the Eglin Federal Credit Union, and I watched the video. And after I got done watching the video, what popped up in my mind is after looking at the mold, and the condition of the air conditioning, and things like that, I thought, " I don't want my kid to go there." And that's a sad state of affairs. But we've got Tom here. And Tom and his wife Peggy, are in support of the half cent tax for the school. And Tom has a unique perspective on the history of the area. And can talk to us a little bit about that as well.
Dan: Sounds good. Okay, Tom.
Tom Rice: Well Dan, I appreciate you doing this. This is unique for me to come to the Vince's office to talk to you at the studio that we sponsored. We've been great supporters of the school system. Peg and I are both graduates of Choctawhatchee High School. And we didn't go to the one that Vince went to. We went to what is now Meigs Middle School. The Choctawhatchee High School that we went to, was opened in 1953, built in 1952. The first class was in 1953. We both went to the old school board building. We both went to the Fort Walton School for a time. And the building that's now used for offices, part of it's closed. But they do use some of the offices there. So we have a long tradition. The only school we didn't go to was the little white school building down there on the Historic Triangle. But having gone to Meigs, and then watching Choctawhatchee High School being built, for the first class in fall of 66. Very shiny, really great, but you look at how many years that school has now been operating, and much like the restaurant, we joke a lot that most of my job at the restaurant is curator, and people say, " Well, why aren't you open on a Saturday morning?" I said, " That's when we do paint puddy, and constant renovation." We've got a building that's 110 years old. And guess what, some of the schools that we've got are half that old. 50, 60 years, 70 years for a facility, and times have changed. The schools that we went to had awning windows that opened up, there was no such thing as air conditioning. So we've added a lot of things to make the education possible. That the kids will stay awake during class, by being cool and having a safe environment. I was absolutely appalled when we went over to Edwin's, and walked through that with one of the first meetings that we had with this effort. And holes in the ceilings, they're doing the best they can. There's just not enough money to do the major rehabs, that they're going to have to do to some of these schools. That's why Peg and I... Peg was a teacher in the classroom. She spent 38 years in the classroom. Was chorus director at Bruner, then moved with the ninth graders over to Fort Walton Beach High School. We both say that while our shirt may be red, we would wear red shirts when we were volunteering over at Fort Walton, but our blood was green. A joke to the kids, but we've supported all these schools. There's just not enough money to go for the maintenance, and some of the major things that need to be done. Walking through Choctawhatchee High School, and seeing the condition of the HVAC system. We would not, in our homes or in my business, tolerate the kind of equipment that's now 50 some years old. There's much more efficient equipment. Buildings have been torn down in our community, that are younger than those buildings. And they've done what they can do to keep them up, but they're suffering from a lot of things now that just paint and puddy won't fix. The air conditioning systems, the wiring, some of those things that take some major money. And one of the things that we support, we try to do these pancake breakfast for the band kids, and for the chorus programs and for the junior ROTC. But, a pancake breakfast can't raise the kind of money that the schools need. So we look at this as a sales tax. I had somebody at the restaurant the other day that said, " Well, we just didn't want any more taxes." And I said, " Well, this half penny will generate tremendous amounts of money." And unlike property tax, a lot of folks that visit with us will share this burden. In the winter time, we have all our snowbird friends, that have no problem coming and paying for pancakes to support the kids. Those pennies that they'll be spending, they'll be doing the same thing. There'll be buying new air conditioners and new wiring, and new roofs for these buildings. So we look at this sales tax is something that is spread across the community, and is also a spread to all the visitors that come here. So, we look at this as really a win-win, to be able to let them help us keep these schools up.
Vince Mayfield: And so 50% is paid for by the tourist. We commissioned a study to go and take a look at that, and 56%, that's the number, is going to be paid by the tourists. It's going to generate roughly $234 million over a 10 year period. And the reality is that there's a $500 million need. Jacob's Titan has gone in, they have looked at all the schools. And rack and stack them. Evaluated all of the systems. And, we just need to get our schools up to, we're asking for a B-. They're a D-right now. And this is a great way to generate the funds that are necessary to do that. A lot of people don't realize that Florida, ranks 43rd out of 50 States in funding public school education on a per student basis. And so, people also ask and say, " Well, we had the lottery." But a lot of people don't understand that the lottery money that was out there was rerouted to do Bright Future Scholarships for the colleges. And very little of that lottery money comes to the schools. Now, when the lottery money does come to the schools, what little there is, it cannot be used for capital purchases, like redoing roofs, and buildings, and things like that. And we're not asking for nice to haves, like building a new stadium, or anything like that. We're trying to get kids out of portable classrooms. There's 167 portables Dan. And of those 167 portables, they have average age of 27 years. And that's because the law says what the class size has to be. So if there's not enough room in the physical buildings, they've either got to go buy a portable, or move a portable around from one or the other locations, as they're able to renovate or add a new wing on. And they really haven't been able to do that since 1995, when we passed the last half penny tax for the schools.
Dan: Yeah. And I would think also that maybe safety might be a factor, because you're talking about electrical issues as well. We want to make our kids safe. We want to have them in a nice environment to be able to learn. We want them to make sure they have some air conditioning while they're trying to go to school, and take tests, and learn. And just make it comfortable for the kids. And how about something that looks nice too?
Vince Mayfield: I hear you. When I drive over to Walton County, and I drive by Dune Elementary School, that looks like a state-of-the-art school. Been inside and looked at it, all new wiring and everything. I asked the question, " Why not Okaloosa County?" We've for 40 years here in Okaloosa County, we have traded low taxes and status quo. And we've got the infrastructure here to prove it. And as a business owner, and I know Tom knows this as a business owner, if you're going to provide a product or a service, there's a certain level of investment that you have to make, to keep a quality service or product there in play. And, the schools simply don't have it. We don't have a spending problem here, we have a revenue problem. The schools are actually very frugal.
Dan: Are you there?
Tom Rice: Are we there? We are there, Dan.
Dan: I thought maybe I lost you.
Tom Rice: And recently, when we opened the Magnolia Grill, a 1910 building, we put state of the yard air conditioning in it. I was just amazed at how many tons you needed for 2, 500, 3000 square foot. Well, a decade has gone by, it's all air conditioning units that we put 10 years ago, and 20 years ago, they're all having to be replaced now. We've got schools that were built in the sixties, and earlier that have been renovated and tinkered with, but it takes some major money. And one of the ways, and I know Vince has got the details on it, but the allocation for money that goes to infrastructure is an equal thing. So Walton County has fewer students, but they get the same amount of money, in the check that comes to do the renovations, and that sort of thing for the infrastructure. Here we have, I think we're 23 kids to their... Or 23 kids over there, we got a hundred kids over here, but we get the same amount of money. The wear and tear on these buildings is just incredible. And like your church, or like your business, or like your home, there comes a time when the switches have to be replaced. The air conditioning, have to be pulled out, and you've got to put a new roof on. And when you're talking about putting a roof on a high school, you're not talking about $20,000, you're talking about maybe, a million dollars, $2 million. Before the show got on, we were talking about Mr. Spolsky. When Megan was going to Choctaw, Mr. Spolsky was a newly graduated teacher. He was there in the summertime running cable, when they put a computer in every teacher's desk. So, some of that thing has been done. And now, we don't expect just one computer to be in a classroom, we expect to have a whole classroom full of computers. So some of this will be, this money will come in, and it will be observed by a team, a community team that we'll oversee. And Vince why don't you to tell them about how that... Some people are concerned, we're going to give this money, but we're not going to know where it goes. How is this going to work?
Vince Mayfield: It's going to be a citizen's advisory council that is going to review these items. And these people are going to be nominated from one of each of the chambers of commerce. They will be people that have a background in either finance, or construction, or things like that. But not actually involved or have any way of materially benefiting from that. It will be under the Sunshine Law, and it will be approved by the school boards. And so those folks will look at these needs, as these projects go on, and provide that oversight for the citizens of Okaloosa County. We're doing a very similar thing right now, with the half-cent tax that passed for the County in 2018, for public safety, and storm water, and roads. And in fact Matt Turpin, who is with Bank of England Mortgage, and a former chair at the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce sits on that particular board. And the county's done a great job of making full transparency, publishing all those projects as they've been accomplished on the website. A lot of people don't realize that the entire PJ Adam's bypass is being funded with that, and then BP Triumph funds in order to do it. So we are doing a similar model here with the schools, and the school district, should the voters agree and help pass this half penny tax.
Dan: I will bet you that most of the voters will go along with this, because I think the citizens of Okaloosa County support the school system.
Tom Rice: Well, and Dan, I had somebody who was in the restaurant the other day, and of course these subjects come up. Even if they have to come back to the kitchen to ask me things and say, " You know what, tax will never go away." And I said, " Well now, the last time we did this, it was also what...
Vince Mayfield: Three years?
Tom Rice: Three years...
Vince Mayfield: In 95?
Tom Rice: In 95. And it sunset. There came a point where that was done. And so this effort, it also has an end date. You have to have another referendum. This is a one time shot for this. If the people in a decade from now, they want to redo it, they could go again. But this doesn't go on forever. So it does have an end date to it. It's got some ideas of what they need to do with the money. That's always comforting to me. We don't have any kids in the school system now. We have grandkids that are in the school system. So the schools that will benefit from it, I don't actually have a child in school now, but I think it's one of those good things that Peg and I have decided, this is something we really need to do. She was teaching, still teaching when the last one came along, and she actually got a computer. Today we have a computer in our hand, but in those days, when this happened before she actually got a computer that she could actually talk to the front office with. Now we just shake our heads and kids look at you, like that's crazy. But in those days, just to have a computer on your desk, that was a step forward. So there's a lot of the things that we need to do. I think what concerns me a lot is when military families, and organizations, companies come and look at the area, and they want to open a business here. And, while we have a great, great school system that's a credit to the teachers, and the faculties, and the leadership. But the facilities are so appalling that a lot of companies I think would come around, " What are your schools like?" " Well, we have all these A schools, but golly mighty, it's like teaching in a tent." So, businesses may look somewhere else, to move their business. So that's a concern down the road, military installations, that's a big thing to have good schools in your community.
Dan: Yeah. It really is. And when you think about it, people love their football teams, for all the high schools. And they are willing to do booster clubs, and do whatever they have to, to help the football teams. But what about the school itself?
Vince Mayfield: Exactly. It's interesting. When you look at, Tom talked a few minutes ago about taxes. And how much money is there for the infrastructure. So just to give people a little bit of perspective here, you've got Walton County, which has 9, 200 students, or so. You have Okaloosa County that has 32,000 students. And the money that comes for that infrastructure comes from property taxes. And so we have some of the lowest property taxes in the state. And if you look at the two counties, they both take in roughly $30 million, for the capital expenditures that are necessary. Now that's $30 million to service, 32,000 students in 38 schools. And $30 million to support 9, 000 students, and I believe it's 11 schools. So there's a huge disparity and difference there. And as I mentioned before, the Florida State Legislature, and we have some of the lowest taxes. They've left it to the schools, or their local communities to come up with the additional funding, that they need to fund local schools. That you've either got to do that through increasing property tax, or doing it through a sales tax, or some other assessment. The great thing about a sales tax, again as Tom mentioned, everybody pays it, that comes here. Every visitor, every person, and they pick up a portion of the bill. And since our economy is built on tourism and military, and the tourists come here, it makes sense to have the tourists pick up 56% of that bill. It's one of the things that can help generate the funds that are necessary to do this.
Dan: I've got a question, maybe you can clarify this. Now doesn't a lot of the tax money, the funding for the schools, does that come out of property tax?
Vince Mayfield: Yes, it does come out of property tax. There's also money that comes from the Federal Government. And that gets aggregated and sent down. But the total amount, we rank 43rd in the nation in our funding of public schools here per FTE. And if you look at the amount of money that the schools, what they do in terms of capital funding, and how the money is spent on a per student basis. If you look at Walton County, for example, they spend $3, 281 per student, maintaining their capital base there, and the buildings, and those types of things. If you look over to Escambia, it's $2, 008 per student. If you look at Santa Rosa, it's $648 per student. And the state average is around $900 per student. You'll never guess where Okaloosa is at, $236 per student.
Dan: That's pretty low.
Vince Mayfield: **crosstalk** again are underfunded.
Dan: Yep. And what I was getting at there Vince, is if we're paying money on of our property taxes to go towards the schools, the better option would be the sales tax, rather than raise property taxes to compensate. I would rather have the tourists help out, than just funding it ourselves.
Vince Mayfield: Absolutely. And we have shown, of course they won't all know. They'll just see 7% on the ticket when I hand them their bill. But we have found that our winter visitors, are more than helpful when we have fundraisers for the school. We just can't cook enough pancakes to do the fixes that we need to do. We need bigger help than that. We need to put these roofs on. We need to get the plumbing fixed. We need to get the wiring, the big switch panels fixed. And we need to get the air conditioning replaced. And these are just major items that need to be taken care of. You got to dry in the building and then you've got to get the thing fixed. And it is 50, 60 years in some cases. And this is going to take some money, and this is a way to do it.
Dan: Yeah. It almost seems like it's taken too long to get to this point, to get the money for the schools. Is there any reasoning behind not raising more money for the schools in the past?
Vince Mayfield: Well, we're a very conservative area. Nobody wants to pay more taxes than they have to. And we've worn this badge of courage that we have the lowest taxes, some of the lowest taxes in the state. And eventually, that catches up with you. And this is why the County asked for a half cent tax in 2018. And that also came out of a grassroots movement because, this impacts, as Tom said, our businesses. It impacts our area. Schools are economic drivers. Not only do they bring qualified people into the workforce, but they also show a level of investment in the community. And so when companies come here, or when we try to attract doctors or engineers here, they come and they look at this and they go, " I don't want to raise my family here. The beaches are beautiful. It's a great place to live. But getting a proper K-12 education, in a safe and quality environment is absolutely critical. And when parents see that, they go, " I don't want my kids there." It's just like me pulling over the other day. I love Choctaw, and I was excited about my daughter who plays travel ball, going to play softball at Choctaw. And then ultimately I want her to go to Notre Dame, and play softball. But after watching the video that came out from Get The Coast, I said, " I don't want my kid there. I don't want them. If they're not going to fix it, I'll send them to private school, or I'll try to do something else to get them educated properly." But what I'm doing right now, and what other like-minded business people in the community are saying, " It's time. It's time to act. It's time for us to do something. It's time for us to invest in our community. And it's time for us to fix this problem. Because we the people of this community, have the ability to make it happen."
Dan: Yep. And I think it's time. I really do. I think, as a grandparent, and my grandkids going through school, I want them to have a nice facility to go to. A nice school to go to. That's safe, has good air conditioning, the electricity is good. It's the whole thing. Why not have a good school facility for the kids to go into? Why not?
Vince Mayfield: I don't know, maybe we should send them all to school with umbrellas because that's the problem we've got now, is the leaking roof. That is a cheap solution. We could mandate it that way.
Tom Rice: All right, Dan, you know my thoughts on this. I think this is a great idea. But I think it's about time for you to sign off, isn't it?
Dan: It is. We've got to take off. Thank you guys for coming in. Both of you.