The ballot in this month’s primary election asks Orange County voters if they want to extend for another decade a local half-penny sales tax to raise money to build and renovate public schools. County voters approved the current tax in 2002. If it’s not extended, it expires next year. Dick Batchelor, a consultant who headed the winning campaign for the tax in 2002, is leading this year’s effort to extend it. In a recent interview with the Sentinel Editorial Board, he said the extension is essential to build or renovate 59 schools in the county. Excerpts of the interview follow. A video is online at OrlandoSentinel.com/opinion.
Q: The half-penny sales tax that voters approved in 2002 will have raised more than $2 billion by the time it expires next year. Why is the school district coming back for more?
A: Of the 136 schools that we had on the 2002 list that needed to be replaced or rebuilt … the school system only got to 94 of those schools. So if you look at the schools that are still on the list, and the schools that have been added to the list over the last 12 years, there are about 59 schools that need to be rebuilt. Frankly, without this happening — the sales tax [extension] — none of them will be rebuilt at all. There are no other revenues.
Q: Is the student population growing enough to justify extending the program?
A: While you see declining population in other school systems, in 2013-14, there was a 3,000-student increase in the population in the Orange County Public Schools, which is the equivalent of about three elementary schools or one and a half middle schools.… [And] keep in mind that [state] voters passed a constitutional amendment [in 2002] dealing with class size, [limiting] class sizes in the state of Florida.… [W]e needed about $600 million just to accommodate the constitutional amendment requiring class sizes be limited.
Q: Weren’t there some management problems in the program?
A: [T]here were problems with the facilities department. … Fortunately, I think bringing John Morris on [as the chief facilities officer], who has a tremendous reputation … has really tightened things up. And the School Board has what they call a COVE committee — Construction Overview Value Engineering committee — made up of professionals who review every school that’s proposed to be built. … It’s been estimated now with the improvements in the facilities program that the school system is saving about $1 million per elementary school that’s being built. There were problems, but those problems have been resolved to my satisfaction.
Q: If all the schools on the list in 2002 didn’t get built, why should voters trust that all the schools on the 2014 list will get done?
A: I think now with the new management at the facilities [department], and the new School Board leadership, I think there’s a great deal more confidence in this School Board than there was in the last School Board in 2002. … I think we can have confidence [the list] will be built. … [W]e project the half-penny sales tax over the next 10 years — it’s a 10-year extension — will raise at least $2 billion, which will be enough to fund [the list].
Q: The School Board has a budget over $1 billion a year. Isn’t there room in a budget that big to cover construction?
A: Those are operations dollars. There are very, very limited monies for capital outlays … With the class-size-reduction constitutional amendment impacting the school system by $600 million, there’s less and less money, and because we have growth in the school system here.