On Volusia: Questions and Answers

You know what I always say?

If you can’t do it for $847 million, you can’t do it.

Anyone who needs a remedial class in the inefficient inner-workings of Volusia County government – in all its multiple forms and functions – need look no further than our long-suffering school district.

According to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the Volusia County School Board recently heard some scary stories from district officials regarding the back-log of infrastructure projects, some of which have been languishing on the ‘ol “to-do” list for over a decade.

Really?

In 2001, and again in 2014, the district pushed for and received a voter approved half-cent sales tax to fund specific infrastructure projects and new school construction.

According to the News-Journal, “The next round of the tax, which began in January, is expected to bring in more than $480 million over 15-years and will help improve technology, build new schools, improve sports facilities and more.”    

That’s the cherry on top of a current annual operating budget of some $847 million dollars.

Now, we learn that district officials have bonded some $40 million this year – and anticipate taking loans over $100 million next year – essentially borrowing money, with interest, to meet “critical capital projects.”

These bonds come at a time when the half-penny sales tax is expected to generate some $40 million annually, well more than the school districts initial expectations.

What gives?

It looks to me like the Volusia County School Board is taking cues from the Daytona Beach Main Street CRA – load yourself up with so much paralytic debt that any additional revenue simply covers principal and interest payments on the sins of the past.

It takes the thought and finesse out of it, I guess.

Why is it no one in county government can live within their means? 

We’re told by school officials that – because the district must snack on sales tax funds monthly – rather than receiving one lump sum to gorge on – it lacks the “up-front” cash to move forward with even routine maintenance projects, like repairing and replacing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning units.

Bizarre.

You know, I’m not an expert in education administration and finance – hell, the toughest three years of my life was the 8th grade – but I have a goofy opinion on everything (obviously) and that includes the manner and means by which our school district specifically – and county government generally – manages its voracious appetite for tax dollars.

Barker’s View HQ is located a stone’s throw from the now razed and renovated Ormond Beach Middle School – so close that when the wind is right, the peace and dignity of my early afternoon cocktail hour(s) is interrupted by the squeals and screams emanating from the PE field.

During the renovation, I got a first-hand view of just how our school district spends huge money on construction projects – thousands of square feet of individual bricks over reinforced cinderblock – two stories – with supporting infrastructure, furnishings, parking and athletic amenities.

Oddly, the school is built like a brick shithouse (literally), yet it isn’t listed as an evacuation shelter?

In my view, district administrators might consider multi-use options and co-located neighborhood amenities when spending millions of public funds building and renovating these gigantic facilities.

Just a thought.

The other bee in my Easter bonnet is that, occasionally, every light in the building burns all night long – lighting up the campus like some glowing Taj Mahal – on others, only a few interior security lights can be seen.

(Yes.  I realize I sound like your father.) 

Look, I don’t want to nit-pick – but if this happens at every school and county-owned building in Volusia County – that adds up.

Besides, it’s poor optics when you’re beseeching taxpayers like a tattered roadside bindlestiff to pony up good money after bad to cover the cost of building, heating, cooling, furnishing and lighting these massive single-use monuments to government inefficiency.

For years, we’ve heard how Volusia gets screwed to the wall by a convoluted state funding formula – a wacky scheme based on the price of goods and average salaries.

It’s a difficult situation that our state representatives never seem to have the political influence to make right.

In a very informative January 2016 article by Dustin Wyatt, writing for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, entitled: “Push to narrow Volusia school funding gap faces uphill slog,” we learned:

“The formula was introduced in 1973, but it was a 2004 amendment adding a wage index as a way of equalizing school funding around the state that really hurt Volusia. The change was based on a University of Florida study and recognition that more than 80 percent of the typical school district budget is spent on employees’ salaries and benefits. The economists who did the study included wage comparisons, saying people “willingly work for less” in low-cost areas with “amenities” such as beaches and cultural activities.”

 “The model has helped some counties, like Broward, gain up to $425 million in funding since its inception, while Volusia County has been the biggest loser — $120 million in the hole. Flagler County has lost $27 million.”

So that’s why we willingly scrounge for dirt-level take-home pay here on the Fun Coast?

The cultural activities. . .

Damn.  Who knew?

I just thought it was because we long-ago became a place of “haves-and-have-nots” – a down-at-the-heels beach community with a rapidly disappearing middle-class.

A beleaguered tribe of service workers trapped in an artificial economy where the winners and losers are hand-selected by uber-wealthy political insiders, you know, the five or six people in Volusia County who pass the same nickel around?

One would think that our school officials would find a way to cut the fat at the top of the organization – pay our teachers a competitive wage – and use the hundreds-of-millions in public funds and sales tax revenues earmarked for education to full effect – in the classroom, where it matters.

Regardless of how much money we inject into the process, and despite all the standardization and testing, we are still graduating a large percentage of children without basic life skills – or the ability to think critically or communicate effectively.

They are victims of a terribly ineffective – and inefficient – system.

If money is truly the issue, then let’s ask the difficult questions – right size the organization and determine our actual needs – but something tells me it’s not as simple as that.

At the very least, let’s turn our highly-paid Tallahassee lobbyist loose on the formulaic funding conundrum.

Trust me, there are very few things a fist-full of hundreds can’t take care of in those hallowed halls of our state capitol.

I don’t have the answers.

If I did, I would be up to my ears in the public trough myself.

But I think the solution starts by properly managing the resources at hand – before begging for more.

 

 

 

 

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