Two cents on the half-cent tax: Paying for the future of public schools
Kelly Hayes, Alligator Staff Writer | Jan 25, 2019
Joey Spiers remembers the chaos of her students ducking under desks, fearful a squirrel in the ceiling would slip through the tiles.
She also remembers opening a drawer in a science lab filled with an opossum’s nest.
While these stories from her 30 years as a language arts teacher at Howard W. Bishop Middle School make her laugh, she grows serious when talking about an asbestos removal and a student’s allergic reaction to the mold.
Alachua County voters passed a half-cent sales tax in November to renovate outdated schools like Howard Bishop. The tax, which started Jan. 1, adds half a cent to the current 7 percent sales tax that is charged, said Jackie Johnson, the Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson.
The tax is expected to raise $22 million per year, totaling about $250 million over the next 12 years, Johnson said. But the actual revenue from the tax could vary based on the county’s economy.
Schools will receive the first dollars from the tax in March, Johnson said. Howard Bishop, W.A. Metcalfe Elementary and Idylwild Elementary are the county’s priority schools and will see some of the first projects funded by the tax.
All 40 county public schools, which do not include charter schools, have been promised an initial $50,000 from the tax to jumpstart projects, Johnson said. Principals will give input on how the funding should be used.
Holes and leaks
At Howard Bishop, inspirational posters bordering the walls of classrooms are laced with mold. A stringy black stain bleeds down the wall in the computer lab reappears despite multiple coats of paint. A hole in the ceiling, which has been leaking for months, exposes the insulation.
“For facilities, [the funding] just hasn’t been there,” said Mike Gamble, the Howard Bishop principal. “It’s well-documented on how it’s disappeared over the years. Over time, it wears on morale.”
Architects and county officials began discussing plans in October, Johnson said. The school board will approve plans to demolish old buildings and classrooms, construct new ones and improve security in February.
About 29,000 students sit in outdated classrooms at time-worn desks, with broken air conditioning units and leaky roofs at the county’s public schools, said Gunnar Paulson, a District 3 Alachua County School Board member.
In the last three years, about 2,000 more students enrolled in the county’s public schools, making it difficult for the county to provide for students, Paulson said.
Revenue from the half-cent tax will bring in essential funding that has been cut from Howard Bishop and other schools, Paulson said. The Florida Legislature cut $168 million from the county’s school facilities.
Summer Hartley, a Howard Bishop science teacher, jokes she has to choose between lecturing and running the air conditioning because the loud humming makes teaching difficult.
Mike McCoy, an American history teacher, patches up his classroom’s peeling paint with his own time and supplies.
And Spiers is changing classrooms because it is difficult for her to move around the compact classroom on her motorized scooter.
“We’ve asked for help for years,” Spiers said. “We just never get it.”
‘It’s got to be based on need’
At Metcalfe Elementary in east Gainesville, several classrooms are more than 50 years old, Principal Jacquatte Rolle said.
“Some of our students spend up to 10 hours a day at school if you include our after-school programs,” Rolle said. “The environment in which a student learns matters.”
Some Alachua County schools have enough classrooms but common areas often cannot fit the student body, Johnson said. Meadowbrook Elementary School tries to alleviate the overcrowding by starting lunch at 9:30 a.m.
The facilities at predominantly black schools have deteriorated in the past decade from the lack of funding, Paulson said. At Metcalfe and Idylwild, more than half the students were eligible for free lunch in the 2016 to 2017 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“It’s prioritized based on needs, so that we can provide a high-quality learning environment to students no matter where they go to school,” Johnson said. “Some schools are a lot closer to that than others so it’s got to be based on need.”
‘A culture of low expectation’
To reduce overcrowding, the half-cent tax will also fund construction of a new elementary school in southwest Gainesville, Johnson said. More than 700 children will attend the school when it opens in Fall 2021.
Eighth-grader J’Niyah Gilbert, 14, will graduate from the private Oak Hall School this year, after transferring last year from Fort Clarke Middle School, an Alachua County public school.
“At Fort Clarke, you couldn’t really learn because the classes were bigger,” Gilbert said. “It’s definitely easier to learn at Oak Hall because the classes are smaller and the teachers are more involved.”
Gilbert’s mother, 39-year-old Chanae Jackson-Baker, said the county’s public schools do not encourage achievement, especially for students of color.
She gave her 18-year-old son, Deonis Jackson, who will graduate from F.W. Buchholz High School this year, as an example. He was pulled from his advanced-level classes without her permission, and she said she received no explanation.
“There’s a culture of low expectation, especially for minority children,” Jackson-Baker said. “For a mom, that’s a major concern.”
East and west disparities
As an advocate for education equality, Jackson-Baker said the half-cent tax appeared to be an investment in future students. But she fears the new school in west Gainesville may worsen the disparities between east and west.
While west Gainesville schools are overcrowded, east Gainesville schools remain under-enrolled. Jackson-Baker believes the district should consider rezoning instead, she said.
“At first glance, the tax seems wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to invest in children?” she said. “But when you dig deeper, you realize that all this is going to do is increase the disparities we already have.”