OUR OPINION: Add bond specificity before referendum

By NEMS Daily Journal

Lee County’s public school trustees voted unanimously on Monday to ask the district’s voters to approve a $13.5 million bond issue in a referendum slated for July 30, but while general and unofficial plans have been offered in an architect’s overview, no specifics have been offered by the trustees.
To be sure, passage of the $13.5 million bond issue would not raise Lee County school taxes because the required millage would replace millage that’s scheduled to roll off the levy in July. Taxpayers would see approximately the same tax bill in a new fiscal year as in 2013. If a bond issue is not passed to maintain the millage obligation, school taxes would decrease annually by $39.10 on a $100,000 house.
Lee County last proposed and passed a school bond issue in 1999 – $8 million. Electoral attitudes about taxation have changed in the 14 years since that referendum; voters are more critical of taxation generally and particularly vigilant about local taxation issues, where the public voice arguably has more impact.
No one’s questioning the need for additional classrooms in the Lee County district or for improvements to existing buildings, but pre-referendum transparency and specificity are arguably more necessary than ever.
Earlier this month, in the Austin, Texas, school district voters rejected half of an $870 million school bond issue in four parts.
The Austin American-Statesman, a strongly supportive editorial voice for public schools, said in comments on the loss, “The message that Austin school district voters sent in Saturday’s school bond election is that they are still willing to invest in public schools, but they look closely at the details.”
Transparency builds confidence among voters who are being asked to approve taxation, whether an increase or maintaining the millage status quo.
Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said he and others will go to constituents if the bond issue passed and seek specific input. More than two months remain before the July 30 referendum, ample time to develop at least some specificity on how the proceeds from a bond sale would be spent, and on which campuses based on quantifiable measures.
Lee County’s public school district is growing and in some instances notably succeeding. The lack of information that reasonably could be provided should not be allowed to become a reason to oppose the bond issue.