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School board searches for funding amid growth

St. Johns County School Board proposes half-cent sales tax

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ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – It's one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation and now, St. Johns County is facing a lack of funding for some of its most critical needs.

Officials said that with more and more people moving to the area, the need for improvements is greater than even and funding needs to be found.

A proposed one-cent sales tax failed before the city commission Tuesday which was aimed at paying for the backlog of needed improvements, from fire stations to roads to a new Sheriff's Training Center and even schools.

With the student count in the district expected to grow from 35,000 to 49,000 students over the next 10 years, meaning the district will need to build 20 new schools over the next decade, the St. Johns County School Board was hoping to get their share of that money. 

School board members narrowed down hundreds of suggestions. They've finally voted on names for two new schools. What was "School H-H" in Durbin Crossing has been named Patriot Oaks Academy. And what was "School I-I" in Nocatee, has been named Valley Ridge Academy.

With the tax referendum taken off the table the school board has come up with a "Plan B." One they hope the public will get behind.

But longtime resident Roy Kennedy said that he's on the fence about whether a sales tax increase is the right option.

"I think we should look into where the growth is actually happening and where the services are actually needed. The builders should bear some responsibility with these impact fees," Kennedy said.

For people like Kennedy, the county's growth is encouraging, but he said he wants to see it managed appropriately.

"I want the quality of life in St. Johns County to remain what it's been. I don't mind people coming, I just want to have some semblance of what we had before," Kennedy said.

Kennedy said that he worries the tax hike would burden lower-income residents, but with some of the most pressing needs of the growing area falling on the shoulders of the St. Johns County School District, Beverly Slough, chairman of the St. Johns County School Board, said it's an issue that can't wait.

"We have no money to build new schools, we have no money to expand schools, and we have a tremendous amount of children coming to us on a regular basis," Slough said.

Slough said the district grew the equivalent of two elementary schools, or one high school just in the past year.

So the board is now considering putting its own half-cent sales tax, which is expected to generate an additional $11 million, up for a public vote, hoping to find funding for that much-needed school construction and expansion.

"It's an easier sell, I believe, for us, because the need is so evident. When you can go to the campus of either of our brand new K-8 schools that we opened less than a year ago and see 18-20 portables being installed for the next school year, that speaks loudly to the need," Slough said.

When asked what she would say to people who oppose the new tax, she said it is about quality.

"Superior schools are what brought you to St. Johns County and we can't stay superior if we don't have your support in providing the seats for those children that you're bringing to us, day by day," Slough said.

Slough said the school board will meet Tuesday for a workshop where they'll discuss the sales tax option. She said nothing is certain yet, but they are looking at all options to get the funding the school system needs.