Half-cent sales tax could pay for School Resource Officers

OKEECHOBEE – A half-cent sales tax could be an option to pay for School Resource Officers in Okeechobee County Schools. The county’s growing property tax base does not mean more funding for Okeechobee County Schools. At the Aug. 13 Okeechobee County Budget Workshop, Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy said the state tries to provide equitable funding for the school districts across the state.

“The Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), all schools belong to that, and that’s our funding stream for all Florida schools,” Mr. Kenworthy explained. “The purpose of that is to try to provide some sort of equitable system across the state.

“They do that by looking at local property values. They look at the programs students are enrolled in. They look at varying costs of living throughout the state, and they look at the cost of equivalent educational program in sparse or areas where student populations are dispersed.” He said the complicated formula used is explained in a 93 page document.

“Over the next few years, our ad valorem base is going to go up because of some new industry going in. That, in itself, is going to help the school district very little,” he said. It’s going to help the taxpayers. It’s going to help the county, he added

School taxes are dictated by the state in regard to the “required local effort” millage.
Okeechobee gets about 97 cents on the dollar to what other systems are provided by the state. “The state thinks it is cheaper to educate a student in Okeechobee County,” he said. “I disagree.” The state looks at how much money was generated per student in each district by the school millage. He said statewide, the school millage set by the state generates about $555 per student. Okeechobee County school millage generates about $258 per student based on the tax roll.

The state kicks in “compression dollars” to bring us up to $555. The more funds raised locally, the less the district will get from the state, but the total per student will be the same, he explained.
Okeechobee County Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said some districts have placed a half cent sales tax on the ballot. He said the half cent sales tax could help pay for the School Resource Officers who work in the schools, and also help fund student mental health programs.

Mr. Kenworthy said more funding is needed for mental health programs. In the past year, 824 students were assessed for mental health services. He said there were 507 threat assessments, in which a student communicated a threat to harm themselves or others.

“Over 60 percent of our residents are in manufactured housing,” said Commissioner Culpepper. Because of the diminishing value of manufactured housing, over the years it goes down and the homeowners wind up paying nothing in taxes except for the fire and EMS assessments. That puts a larger tax burden on the businesses and those who own conventional homes, he explained.

“It’s not fair to them, to keep putting that burden on them,” Commissioner Culpepper continued. He said with a sales tax, everyone contributes.

Chairman Burroughs said similar sales tax referendums have included a sunset clause so the tax would only be for a limited time.

He said other similar referendums have come from the school boards, not the counties. He asked Mr. Kenworthy to take the referendum idea back to the school board. He said they could get it on the ballot for the Presidential Preference Primary or they could use a mail in ballot.

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