By Michelle Anchors
The economic prosperity of Okaloosa County can be negatively affected by events that are not within our local control, such as natural disasters, oil spills and even a global pandemic. Is there any factor in our local control that could positively affect our economic growth? The answer is yes — strong public education. Most local businesses seek a ready workforce of residents who have received a solid education. Most employees with children decide where they want to live based on the quality of the local public schools. Economic growth is directly tied to our schools.
The success of our local public education system is dependent in large part on our teachers. Teachers will tell you that their effectiveness is dependent, in large part, on the strength, stability and safety of the buildings where they teach. In Okaloosa County, however, those buildings are seriously deteriorating due to a lack of adequate funding of infrastructure. Roofs are leaking and causing mold. Heating and air conditioning systems are failing. Aging temporary portables have become permanent classrooms.
The exciting reality is that our local community has the option of seeing improvements in every single school in Okaloosa County. On Nov. 3, 2020, Okaloosa County voters will decide whether to support a half-cent sales tax that will be used exclusively for capital needs such as repairs to school buildings, safety improvements, replacing the oldest bus fleet in the State of Florida, and technology. The tax is estimated to bring in approximately $23 million annually and will remain in place for 10 years, with over half of the proceeds coming seasonally from tourists who visit our area.
Okaloosa County has not had such a tax in place for more than 20 years. During that time, neighboring counties have far surpassed us in the amount of money spent on capital needs. The average per student spending on capital needs in 2017-18 was over $800. In Walton County, the average was $3,281.00. In Okaloosa County, the average was $237.00. We cannot invest in our schools at far below the average rate and expect above average results.
The voters of Okaloosa County are generally considered fiscally conservative, but they recognize that supporting public education is one of the most fundamental roles of limited government. The Okaloosa Republican Women have endorsed the half-cent tax, along with all of the Chambers of Commerce in Okaloosa County, the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, and the Building Industry Association. A political action committee known as School Cents Makes Sense, Inc., consists of private sector business leaders from all parts of Okaloosa County who are spearheading the campaign.
To ensure transparency and accountability, each Chamber of Commerce will recommend one person to serve on a volunteer Citizens Advisory Committee, which will monitor the spending and the projects to ensure that the money goes to the priorities of each school. A list of those projects and more information about the half-cent proposal can be found at www.schoolcentsmakessense.com. We have not had a sales tax to benefit schools in every 20 years. If you want to strengthen our local economy, then cast your vote to strengthen schools and vote yes on the half-cent, because “School Cents Makes Sense!”