District review team reviews school needs for tax review

Mar 13, 2012

The Leon County School District wants taxpayers to renew a half-cent sales tax come November. The money goes to support local school building and maintenance projects. Over the last few years, most of the money the county has used to fix up schools has come from that tax—as state support has dwindled. And as Lynn Hatter, a group of community members are now touring the county’s schools to assess the need for the tax—and to make the case to taxpayers for renewing it.

The District’s review team stands in the kitchen at Fairview elementary school, in a space that is about the size of a single-car garage. In the middle of the room sits a stainless steel table piled with cartoons and crates. The day’s lunch is cooking in industrial ovens lining the walls of the space.  day’s lunch…

  “What’s for lunch? We’ve got turkey and rice…"

That turkey and rice has been cooking since 4 am in the morning. It’s prepared at another location, because the school’s kitchen is too small. So, by the time lunch starts, approximately 7 hours later…

“Mush. And the kids let us know….if we had a cooking kitchen here—you raise your participation, the nutrition level, and their ability to learn goes up with it…” 

Paul Byrd heads the district’s facilities division. The kitchen in the school’s cafeteria is just one of the many areas in serious need of repair. There are more than 880 students at Fairview—about a 1000 people go through the halls daily.  And the school’s principal Scott Hansen says those numbers present another logistical issue—bathroom space.

“One of the issues we stopped here for…you see a boys and girls bathroom on this side…a boys and girls down there…two more on this side…and that’s it for 880 kids. And when you walk in…Maybe, three urinals, and three stalls…that’s not many for almost 900 people…including staff.”  

Hansen guides the group around the school and into its courtyard, an enclosed space with a glass ceiling. He points out areas in need of repair, including the bathrooms. Also on the list: heating and cooling.  There’s about a 20-degree difference between the school’s hallways and its gym. The gym’s  a/c unit blows constantly. There’s even something that looks suspiciously like duct-tape on it. The hallways are hot and stuffy due to poor circulation. And those are just the outward signs of some of the needs of a school that was built in 1968. The district’s Paul Byrd says Fairview is one of the schools near the top of its list for major repair work.

“The schools today are representative…the one’s we’re touring, were chosen because they represent the needs of all the schools in the most dramatic way.”  

 State funding for these kinds of maintenance projects have dwindled. School districts haven’t gotten any money for them in the last two years. That’s partly because the state funding that supports maintenance and construction—called PECO—has all but dried up. Some people have argued that as the state has had to cut budgets, maintenance and construction are things that can be put on hold.

“Changing the infrastructure does not guarantee better learning.”

 Tallahassee Community College President Jim Murdough is part of the team touring Fairview, and he says, that is a false argument.

“Teachers can do a much better job with a quality learning environment that doesn’t distract students, that doesn’t present safety hazards. That’s not uncomfortable because it doesn’t heat or cool efficiently. I mean, you heard a conversation here where kids congregate, that doesn’t meet indoor air quality standards. If that doesn’t trouble you, I don’t know what does.”

What little money left has gone to charter schools, which don’t get to tap into local tax revenue.  Come November, the county’s half-penny sales tax, which it passed a decade ago, is due to expire.