Marcus Chambers: Schools Need Infrastructure Modernization
Dan: Yes it is, and it is 8:30 and it's time for Bit Wizards tip of the wand managed IT services. But today we're going to change it up just a little bit. We have the part owner, Vince Mayfield. Also he's the chairman of the board this year for the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. And speaking of chambers, we have Marcus Chambers here, Superintendent of Schools for Okaloosa County School District and recently has been elected into that position, by the way. Superintendent of Schools Chambers, congratulations on your win.
Marcus Chambers: Thank you very much. I appreciate it and thank you for having me this morning.
Dan: Yes, sir. And Vince, always glad to welcome you to the show. You always bring a lot to it with your humor. I would say Irish humor as a matter of fact.
Vince: There you go, Dan. Well, thanks. It's good to hear you this morning. As you mentioned, we've got Superintendent Chambers here at the top with us. We have the Fort Walton Beach Chamber in concert with some of the other forward-thinking members of the business community, have come together in a grassroots movement to do the School Sense Make Sense campaign to fund the capital needs for the Okaloosa County School District. And with that, we've asked Superintendent Chambers to come on board. And again, sir, I want to thank you for coming on board and I also want to compliment you. You guys have done a great job handling COVID. And my wife is a school teacher, so I understand all of the issues and logistics that you guys have had to go through, but you guys have done a fantastic job.
Marcus Chambers: I appreciate that. And we're blessed to have amazing administrators and teachers and support staff, so they're doing a fantastic job. And we're just working every day to try to get even better during these times.
Vince: Absolutely. So maybe we ought to talk a little bit about why we're having the campaign and what the current condition is of the schools and what we mean by capital expenditures.
Marcus Chambers: Well, first of all, I would just like to say, first of all, thank you for the grassroots efforts to support our schools. I think that is huge. And I always like to say, we're blessed to have an amazing school district. We're the fourth rated school district in the state of Florida academically. And then you look at what our kids do in band and chorus and athletics. And we have fantastic teachers. And what I like to say is, we have a vision in this school district to do great things. And when you look at our kids and our employees and that excellence, what's lacking is our buildings and our infrastructure. It doesn't necessarily match that excellence. Now we have our maintenance crew and our facilities crew, they work hard. But when you look at 61% of our buildings are 50 years of age or older. 75% of our buildings are 45 years of age or older. Edge Elementary is 82 years old. We have the oldest bus fleet in the state of Florida, and we're still doing great things. But just imagine what we could do with upgrades to our facilities. When I say upgrades I'm not talking about luxury items, I'm talking about fixing air conditioners or roofs or even sewer lines. So there's a lot that we need to do. But when you look at capital expenditures, we're talking about dollars that come from the state that can help fix things within our school systems such as walls, such as roofs, or even looking forward in terms of building new wings or even building new schools.
Vince: Absolutely. As I understand it, too, you also have had some unfunded mandates that have basically been placed on to you by the state with respect to the shootings at Parkland. And so you guys have also been saddled with that as well in doing security upgrades. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Marcus Chambers: Absolutely, and I will say the state of Florida has done a great job in terms of a vision for making sure that our schools are safe in the state of Florida. And there's some money that they have sent. But as you can imagine, when you start looking at single point of entry and making sure that our schools are as safe as possible, there's a cost associated to that. So about a year ago, we started plan A and plan B, which is our single point of entry. And to date, we have about 37 schools and we'll have about 13 of our schools completed with single point of entry. But each year we spend about 6.5 to $8 million of our capital dollars, and we have about 30 million of capital, and we spend anywhere from 6.5 to 8 million on safety and making sure that we have single point of entry. We have perimeter fencing. Looking at our camera systems and other areas that I can't speak about because it's safety, but that's a big deal. And like I said, the state has done a great job with their vision, but we also have to supplement those dollars to make sure that we can get this done in a timely fashion.
Vince: It's interesting you talk about the state because we know that the current governor, Governor DeSantis, has made education a priority and is trying to infuse much needed funds into the schools as best he can. I know he talked a little bit about an increase of salary for the teachers. Unfortunately though, prior to Governor DeSantis, going back to 2015 and even before that, and you look back in 2010 all the way up to today, the schools have historically not been funded very well. In fact, Florida ranks number 43 out of 50 states in funding per student. So that's really put you guys the power curve or the ability to do the things that need to be done to educate kids. And you've done a great job with what you've got. And so, there's members out in the community that said that school districts just need to tighten their belt and sharpen their pencil. And I kind of laugh at that because if you go out, the information is very transparent. It's published on the Okaloosa County School District website. You are audited every year. And all of that data is aggregated by the Florida Department of Education and published on their website as well. And you can compare what is spent by this county in terms of costs on a state from an average level and then also our surrounding counties.
Marcus Chambers: No, absolutely. And one thing that just came to mind as you were talking a little bit about that is, Okaloosa County is one of a handful of districts over the last five years to be rated an A plus district, district not schools, but an A plus district by the state of Florida. And one of the components of that deals with your finances. You have to do a good job with your finances, as well as academically and other areas. And we're one of a handful to be in an A plus district for about five or more consecutive years. Here's one of the bottom lines as it pertains to kind of what we're talking about, this whole topic. When you look at capital dollars, Okaloosa County, we spend about $237 or even less per student on capital expenditures. And you look at someone just right over to our east in Walton County. They do a great job. They spend about $3, 281 per student on capital expenditures. Once again, in the 17, 18 year, that same year, Okaloosa County spent $237. Not because we didn't want to spend money on our students, but because it's the amount of capital dollars that we have. So for example over in Walton County, they have about 12,000 students, great, great school district. They have about 12,000 students. We have 32, 000 students. They receive the exact same amount of capital dollars that we receive with 20, 000 less students because they have more taxable property in their school district and they have a voted in millage rate. So when you take the total amount of capital dollars and divide it by the number of students, you get the per pupil spending. And in 2017, 18, we were $237 and again, Walton is doing a good job, $3, 281.
Dan: That's huge.
Vince: I've seen some of those new schools that they've built over there, the Dune Elementary School over there going down highway 98, very beautiful school. And I've been inside and seen state-of-the-art. And if we're going to have students that can come out of high school and take on jobs that are needed to keep our economy strong, we need to be investing. Not only do they need good solid buildings and ACs and roofs, but they also need the technology and then also we have the security element that we have to address. Now one of the issues, I recently met with Mayor Whitton in Crestview and Crestview Administrator Tim Boldock, and he was telling me that some of the impact of the condition of our capital budgets in our schools has affected their ability to recruit doctors to the area. I know as a business myself, our ability to recruit high end engineers, we have lost folks. In addition to that, citizens in the north end of the county are concerned because, for example, Crestview High School has a large number of portables and they're overcrowded. Can we talk a little bit about that and what your vision is and how we might be able to fix that if we get this tax through?
Marcus Chambers: Absolutely. And I like to say, and even some of our school board members also say, this half cent sales tax that if we're blessed to get, it's not about me as superintendent, it's not about our school board members. It's about our students, it's about our employees, and it's about the next generation of Okaloosa schools. We sit here in this county, what do we want our schools to look like? And I don't mean just the beauty, but what is the vision for our schools over the next 20 years? And that's what this half cent sales tax has the opportunity to do. In our county pre COVID, we have about a 1. 5% increase in student enrollment each year, which is about 400 to 500 kids which equates to a small elementary. Specifically to your question up in the Crestview area, we have substantial growth up there in that area. And we know right now today that we need to build a new school in Crestview. But we also know in the central part of the county, we need a new school. We know in Destin, we need a minimum of K through two school. In the south end of this county, we know that there's going to have to be some expansion of wings, not necessarily a school, based on the enrollment projections. But we have to get a grip on not only fixing the things that need to be fixed within our buildings, but also we have to be prepared for growth, because if we're not what's going to eventually is just like you alluded to over in Walton County, they're building these new schools, they're upgrading the current schools and what's going to happen is you're going to have military, for example. They're going to come to this area. Where do we want to live? Or you're trying to attract businesses to this community. Where do they want to live? They see what the schools look like in Walton County and then you see what the schools look like in Okaloosa County and they're going to end up going to Walton. And what does that do for our local economy? Now I'll put our school district up against any school district in the state of Florida, in the nation for that matter, academically, athletically, extracurricularly. I think we have some of the best band and chorus programs anywhere. But our facilities, again, they do not match the excellence of what's happening academically or extracurricularly or athletically.
Vince: I'm a product of the schools here, as I know you are. I want to Cherokee and Shalimar Elementary, Megs and Choctaw. I know you went the Niceville route. And it's kind of funny. I got to go back as part of this grassroots movement we went to all the different schools around the county and we met with the parents and the teachers and anybody that was interested, to talk about what we wanted to do and why we wanted to do it. And it was amazing to me when I walked into Choctaw to see that really not a lot has changed. The school looks just as bad as it did when I was going to school and then it was fairly new. Although they do a decent job trying to keep it maintained enough today, I talked with some parents had talked about during testing one year, that they had to come pick the kids up from school because the AC was out. And how can a kid be expected to concentrate and do well on their standardized testing when the AC is out? These are problems. And then also with the age of the buildings that we've got here, it's got to cost more money to maintain an older building. How does that work for you guys? How are you able with a $5 million budget to maintain all the schools and address the needs? How are you juggling it?
Marcus Chambers: So good question. So we have about a $30 million capital budget. And when you start looking at how do we spend those dollars? And I think it's important for the public to know I think in full transparency, what do we do? And this is this an example of one year. So we spend about 6.5 million on technology, which is a capital expense. So all the computers, the laptops that we have in this school district, getting them serviced and making sure that we have strong technology. It's about 6.5 million. We spend about another 5.5 million on maintenance, another 7 million on security upgrades, so part of that single point of entry, fencing. And then about 6 million on debt service. And that debt service is paying off the two schools that we've built this century, Riverside Elementary and Shell River. So once you start doing that math and you go down, you have about approximately $5 million leftover to fix the entire school district. So for example, last year Niceville High School, we had to fix some roofs. They had to be done, a little over a million. So over almost a million dollars just on Niceville High School. Choctaw had that issue a couple of years ago where we had to fix the roof about a million dollars. So when you have $5 million left over, the truth of the matter is that you have to prioritize. Fort Walton Beach High School, they're in the need of a new HVAC system, air conditioning. And what a lot of school districts would do, they'd fix it in one year. We've been fixing Fort Walton Beach's air conditioning system over a five to six and seven year period because you don't have enough dollars to fix it right away. If you do, it's at the expense of other schools that might need something. So here in Okaloosa, once again, we stretch the dollars as best we can. Make sure that the schools have what they need, so to speak. But we have to prioritize the amount of dollars that are left to be able to fix the things that we need to fix.
Vince: It's interesting that you mentioned that because I used to work for a company over in Niceville called BTG, which ultimately now became Jacobs Titan. And back then, I built a software system to manage Air Force housing. It's one of the things that the Titan does and they help the Air Force manage their real property or manage their buildings and they have a real property model that they utilize. And one of the contracts that they got in the later years that I was there was to help the Okaloosa County School District with managing their real property. And in doing this, they've gone out as part of what we're trying to show the need and to help you guys rack and stack where the need is and where we need to put it. They've gone out and they have taken a look and evaluated all of the schools in the district, and they've come up with, and these aren't nice to haves. These are things that you have to do, roofs, Acs. And they have racked and stacked them based upon a model. And they've provided that information to you in the school district. Now from there, it's up to you guys to take that and then decide how we spend the dollars that we've got. Talk a little bit about that process and how you guys navigate that.
Marcus Chambers: Absolutely. I think it was important for us as the school district to work with Jacobs Titan but also to work hand in hand with our principals, our school advisory councils as well, and to look at what are the needs that we know every school needs from a district level, but also what are those needs from a school level as well. And by district level, I mean that we know that the life expectancy of a certain roof at a school is X number of years. So we know that. The principal may not know that. So we take that into account. But we also take into account what the principal, the school advisory council representatives know that needs to be done at the school, and then Jacobs Titan also then looks at it and says, " Is this a truly a need? Yes." So we made sure that we met with every school. I know your group did a great job of going to every school as well, meeting with parents who showed up to the meetings as well. So we tried to get an overall comprehensive view and an understanding of what every school needs. So every school has a project list that's created. There's a dollar amount associated. So we know that just even of needs right now, there's almost $500 million of needs just in the school district. If we were blessed enough to get the half cent sales tax, we know that there's about 20 to $23 million a year over a 10 year period would be almost anywhere from 200 to $230 million, which we would be just blessed and grateful to receive. But we also know that we need new school buildings. So the school district, we need to have some skin in the game as well. So we wouldn't put the new schools in the half cent sales tax, because that would take up all the money and it wouldn't be able to go to all the schools. So what we would do is also look at, because this is a two-pronged approach. And we have to look at our capital dollars that we have. We bond, for example, to be able to build these new schools and pay off those new schools just like we did for Riverside and Shell River, use our capital dollars, budget accordingly and be smart and wise with the dollars that we have. So this is a big deal. And I go back to saying, it's the next generation of Okaloosa schools. And if we're blessed to get the sales tax, it's going to help us to do things that we need to do just to get our schools up and running and fixed accordingly. But it's also going to help us with capacity. Almost every school we have right now is over the recommended capacity. We worked with a group this summer that says, " Once you're at about 80% capacity, you should be looking at building a new school in that area." Almost every school that we have in this school district is not only over 80, it's over 90, and some are over a hundred percent capacity because we have about 160 portables in the school district. And that's one of the things that we have to work hard to do is eliminate these portables. And one of the ways we eliminate portables is to build a new school, which then you go ahead and have X number of kids go to that school. But then another school, you'd lend students over to the new school which would add capacity to that school. So it's a two-pronged approach here. And this sales tax, I think, is going to set the stage for the next 20 years in Okaloosa County and our school system.
Vince: Just for people's understanding, I don't think a lot of people understand what it costs to build a new school. Obviously we're not going to do that initially with these funds, but what does it cost to build a new school?
Marcus Chambers: So these are numbers given to me. So for example, a high school is anywhere from 120 to 140 million. A middle school, or a K through eight school, about 80 million. A K through two school, anywhere from 25 to 40 million, depending on what you do. So these are expensive. Off the top of my head and you can't hold me to this, but I think Riverside and Shell River together were somewhere around 50 million, I believe the number was, and that was back in the 2006, 2007 timeframe. So schools have gone up exponentially in cost since then. So schools are expensive. So if you think about those numbers there, which is why we wouldn't want to put that in sales tax, because that would eat up all the dollars and it wouldn't be equitably dispersed.
Vince: And not only that you have the cost to build the school, but then on top of that, you've got to have the costs that go along with it afterwards to operate and maintain that school, outfit it with teachers and principals and janitors and folks and administrative staff that do that in order to service that. So it's a bigger issue that we face here. The last thing, we're coming up on time that I wanted to kind of talk about is that the voters in Okaloosa County are always worried about transparency. And we talked about the fact that all of this information is public knowledge. It's out there and available for anybody to access. But with the half-cent tax, one of the things that our group has insisted upon in terms of supporting it, is that we have a citizens advisory council. This has worked well for the county half cent tax, which that funding is something totally different from the school tax. And what we're going to do is appoint a representative from each one of the chambers and we are going to provide a check and a balance with how you spend the money over the next 10 years.
Marcus Chambers: Absolutely, and just as I think your group has insisted that there's a citizens oversight committee, myself, the same, our school board members, the same, I think it's absolutely critical that we do have this and that there's complete transparency. I think the public has to know that what we say we're going to do, we're actually going to do and we're going to utilize these dollars smartly over time and get the projects completed. So the citizens oversight group I think is critical. And even though building new schools isn't part of the half cent, I think just once again just simply being transparent as well, we as a school district have to do our part as well with our dollars and be committed to building new schools because that's a two-pronged approach to this process. So transparency absolutely has to be there and the citizens oversight group, I think is critical to the process and quite frankly, the community knowing that there's a group that's going to be watching these dollars, making sure it's spent like we say it's going to be,
Vince: Yeah, I think that's fantastic and it's absolutely necessary. I think that sometimes that people forget in today's heightened political environment, that these are people that we're talking about. People that live in our community that care about what happens. I know you just had a daughter that graduated from Niceville High School and you've now sent her off to college and you have other children in the school system. I have children in the school system. I have not met a single educator, administrator or person that's sitting over there not thinking about the general welfare of our community, of our children and want to do the very best. I think you guys have a very difficult job and you make do with what you're given by the voters. And we need the voter support in order to make this happen. I'm a conservative Republican. It's odd for somebody like me to say I'm in favor of taxes. But as a business owner, I know that in order to provide a service or a product, and you have to have a certain level of quality, you have to adequately fund that in order to get it done. And to simply say, " Tighten your belt or eventually at some point you're no longer viable anymore." And I don't want our school district to no longer be viable. I don't want our county to no longer be viable. I want our county to prosper and grow because like you, I have children who I want to see prosper and grow. And I want them to come be able to come back and live here in Okaloosa County as opposed to having to go away.
Marcus Chambers: Absolutely. Like you said, my daughter graduated. My son is still in the school system. My wife is a teacher. But this half cent sales tax, just to be very clear, it's about our students. It's about our employees. But it's also about this local economy. And for individuals who do not have students in the school system, it's also about keeping your home values where they need to be and where they probably want them to continue to grow to. So this is a big deal. And for those who have kids in the school system, Davidson Middle School is almost, pre COVID, almost 1200 kids. How big is too big for Davidson Middle School? Projection it'll end up being 1300, 1400, 1500. Ruckle, almost 1200 kids. How big do we want it to be? Antioch Elementary, Bluewater Elementary, Destin Elementary, how big do we want these schools to be? So this is a big deal. This referendum in November, what do we want the next generation of Okaloosa schools to look like? And I for one want our facilities to match the excellence of what's happened in the school district. And I just appreciate the citizens of this county because they want accountability. They want transparency and we do as well. And I just thank them.
Vince: Well, I know you had the confidence of the voters because you got 64% of the vote. And I know that you guys are going to do great things and we want to thank you today for being with us. Diamond Dan, are you there, sir?
Dan: Yes sir, I am here. And I was just curious, one quick question before you leave. How much money do you anticipate to gain on an annual basis from this half cent sales tax increase? Just curious.
Marcus Chambers: So approximately anywhere from 20 to 23 million. I think it depends on which taxes that you're looking at the time. But approximately 20 to 23 million.
Vince: And 56% of that is going to be paid for by the tourists because it is a consumption tax or a sales tax.
Dan: Yes. And that works out good for everybody living here. We love our tourists and we love it when they pay. How about that? Okay, guys, it's time to wrap up. We have Vince Mayfield on the phone with us from Bit Wizards, also Mark Chambers, Superintendent of Schools. Thank you guys very, very much for this talk on the School Sense Makes Sense which is going to be on the ballot, the referendum on November the third. And everybody, I would encourage you to take a look at this very hard, because we do want to make sure that our kids go in a safe environment in their schools and upgrade so they have a decent place to go. Not that they don't now, but it needs to be upgraded. So take a look at this very closely. Thanks, guys. Thanks for coming on this morning.