The Nassau County School Board indicated during a June 4 workshop, that it will not move forward with a referendum asking property owners to pay more taxes in order to fund teacher salaries and security measures in the district’s schools.
“I brought this ballot initiative to the board. I felt like it was important that we do that, but is now the time?” Schools Superintendent Dr. Kathy Burns said at the workshop. “People are unemployed. They don’t know when they are going back to work.”
Until June 4, the School Board had been moving ahead with plan for a November referendum asking voters to approve an additional mill of ad valorem property tax. The coronavirus pandemic, and its effects on the U.S. economy, prompted board members to reconsider.
The Fernandina Beach and county governments were also considering referendums asking voters to approve raising taxes. The city has said it will not move forward with that initiative, and the county is reconsidering its own, according to Burns.
Assistant County Manager Taco Pope confirmed to the News-Leader that the county has not made a decision regarding whether to pursue a fall referendum to increase millage for its land conservation efforts.
Burns said the school district has not been able to move forward due to the coronavirus with an informational campaign to educate the public on the district’s financial situation.
Two unions represent employees at the school district – the Nassau Educational Support Personnel Association and the Nassau Teachers Association. NESPA President Marian Phillips told the board her union does not support moving ahead with the millage initiative, while NTA President Chris Pagel said he was at the workshop gathering information to take back to his union’s Board of Directors, whose members are “on the fence” about the matter.
“A lot of people are unemployed, and not going back to their jobs,” School Board member Russell Johnson said. “They are doing whatever they can … with what money they have available to move forward at a snail’s pace. They are very much concerned about any increase in taxes.”
“I think for us to burden our young families with additional tax – this is not the right time to do that,” Chairwoman Donna Martin said. “I’m not saying kill it. I’m saying, let’s pause … until the people can heal.” Martin also suggested the board could consider the additional millage referendum during the next election cycle.
Board member Gail Cook added that businesses are still not completely open. “Even though we are slowly opening back up, we are not at capacity,” Cook said. “Even if people are working, they are working at a cut. They are going to have to look at their bottom line.”
“I was a huge proponent (of the ballot referendum), but I think we should take a pause on this,” board member Jamie Deonis said, and fellow member Lissa Braddock agreed, saying, “Let’s not further burden the community.”
“My concern is that, if we move this referendum forward during this pandemic, this unprecedented time, and it fails, will we have the opportunity to bring it back in the future?” Burns said. “Does it mean there will be difficult decisions to
make (without the additional revenue)? Absolutely. We know there are some challenging days ahead. I don’t want it to look like we don’t recognize what our needs are.”
Because it was a workshop, no formal vote was taken on the issue.
Providing a snapshot of the school district’s finances, Business Services Executive Director Chris Lacambra said state funds allotted to the district are based on the full-time enrollment of students in Nassau schools as well as the projected revenue from property taxes. Since the district’s student population has been growing and the Property Appraiser’s Office has shown increased property values and growth in the county, projected revenues for the district are on the upswing, he said, by about $4.5 million.
Lacambra said the county’s new growth is costing the district approximately $1.6 million. Then, he said, there are other programs that cost the district $1.4 million, most of which is money for teacher increases promised by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“If you back off those extra costs, that leaves you with an unrestricted, unreserved amount of $1.5 million,” Lacambra said.
The next fiscal year’s budget has not yet been signed by DeSantis as the effects of business closures and decreasing tax revenue are still being analyzed. Burns said that several school superintendents in the state met with Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, who said he believes the budget will pass with the education funding already proposed in place, although that won’t be official until the governor signs the budget. Burns said one state representative, whom she did not name, agreed with Corcoran.
The board also discussed the potential purchase of property that’s currently the location of a trailer park adjacent to Callahan Elementary School. The property could be used to alleviate traffic flow problems at the school and allow room for additional school buildings. The 1.7-acre lot is currently appraised at $310,000 but the asking price is $425,000. Rental income from the trailers on the property is $50,000, according to board members.
Johnson expressed concerns about the trailers, saying the district would have to pay to have some trailers demolished if they could not be moved, something that could cost thousands of dollars. School Board members also said they aren’t in favor of evicting residents from the park in order to be able to use the land.
Cook said the property will be sold, whether it is to the School Board or someone else.
The board decided to again discuss the matter at a future meeting, where a super majority – four out of five board members – would be needed to approve the purchase.
Board members also discussed 108 acres the district currently leases to the Northeast Florida Fair Association. The land is part of 250 acres owned by the school district. The association told the board earlier this year that it wants to make improvements to the property but would face prohibitive costs due to stringent state construction requirements resulting from the district’s ownership of the property.
Board Attorney Brett Steger said he has been researching the sale, and there is a discrepancy in the county property appraiser’s map, which shows two parcels in one block but only gives a description of one parcel. Steger said the board should have an appraisal conducted before moving forward with any plans for the property. The board agreed.
Burns also talked to the board about the return of students to schools in the fall. She said some recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Education “are not doable,” such as one student on every other seat on buses and spacing students six feet apart in classrooms. She said the district has put together a task force that is gathering information from sources such as medical professionals and emergency management to present to the district in order to form a plan.
“We know we will probably have to have more than one plan – a plan ‘A,’ a plan ‘B,’” Burns said. “We are working to see what that will look like. Everybody’s kind of anxious, and we want to create something that’s good. In our meeting with the commissioner, his message to us is that schools will open in August, so what we have to determine is what our plan is. He reiterated that he believes students need to be in a classroom. We were happy to hear him say that.”